Friday, February 25, 2005

All about Japanese girl & guy idols

One of the more interesting aspects of Japan is the effect Japan's "idol culture" has on everyday life. You can't turn on the television or go into a CD store without coming into contact with Japan's various idols, which are also known as "talents" (a generic term for a popular actor/singer/comedian). Whether it's Yuko Ogura appearing in the new commercial for Georgia Coffee Morning Shot, Harumi Nemoto guest-starring on my son's favorite show in which people have to live for a month on just $100, or a cardboard cut-out of Aya Ueto selling the latest Panasonic products in an electronics store, the culture of "cuteness" that Japan has refined to an exact art is a major source of pop culture imagery in Japan. The idea of stars being pre-packaged for national consumption is often hard for Westerners to accept, but Japan's idol world is refreshingly open and honest about how the popularity of top stars is created. Resistance is futile when you live in Japan -- no matter how you try to resist, your eyes will lock on to one pretty face or another, and you'll soon belong to them.

Male idols are big business in Japan, too, and the primary force behind this profitable corner of the industry is Johnny's Entertainment, the management agency started by Johnny Kitagawa to promote male stars. In the same way that the "Komuro Family" of music producer Tetsuya Komuro -- the man responsible for such English lyrics as "Body Feels EXIT" and "Get Chance and Luck" -- defined a chunk of the 1990s with singers that he discovered, Johnny's has created a slew of popular male stars that have universal popularity. The list of Johnny's-kei (Johnny's affiliated) JPOP bands include V6, TOKIO, the oddly-named Kinki Kids, a duo who hail from the Kinki region, where Osaka is located, and SMAP, whose lead singer Takuya Kimura is regularly voted the sexiest man in Japan. (He did the voice of Howl in Howl's Moving Castle, which matches his personality quite well.) The planners at Johnny's have made careful use of the popularity of yaoi in Japan today, promoting stars that are very close to the image of bishounen ("beautiful boy") that are especially popular with female fans.

Japan's in a minor uproar over an incident in which a deranged man with a baseball bat started chasing police officers, who ran for their lives while cameras watched on. Then man then took over their police car and tried to start it before being overpowered and taken away. The comical image of police fleeing the man they're supposed to capture was very humiliating, and Prime Minister Koizumi criticized the police force openly, asking for a review of all training procedures.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Japanese period dramas and Yoshitsune, and how to say "Nostalgic"

Hello from J-List! We're hearing the first rumblings of Spring here in Japan, a time that's called Haru Ichiban. On the Kanto plain that means strong, dusty winds blowing everywhere as high pressure and low pressure zones fight it out for control of the skies. The J-List office is shaking so much it seems like another earthquake, but it's just the wind outside.

When I was a boy, I lived for a year in New Zealand, and one of the things I remember about my time there was watching historical dramas on the BBC about the kings and queens of England. Japan also has a strong tradition of reliving history through jidai-geki (period dramas). Last year, everyone was buzzing about Shinsengumi, the popular NHK drama that detailed the struggle between the old Shogunate and the rebellious reformers who would eventually go on to modernize Japan. The new show everyone's watching now is Yoshitsune, about the charismatic young warrior Yoshitsune (1159-1189) who lived during the Kamakura Period, as told in the Tale of the Heike, one of Japan's historical records. One episode I watched featured a famous battle between young Yoshitsune and a 7-foot-tall warrior monk Benkei on Kyoto's Gojo Bridge. Yoshitsune beat the larger Benkei by whacking him in the shin, and to this day that part of the body is known as Benkei no Nakidokoro or Benkei's Crying Place -- kind of like a Japanese version of the Achilles Heel.

The subject of Japanese group dynamics never ceases to amaze me. In general, the Japanese tend to prefer harmony to confrontation, and getting along is important to people here. From time to time, I've noticed that Japanese will often have a spirited discussion about a subject that everyone already agrees on, with each person adding comments that echo what everyone has already said. I often see my wife's mother doing this with her obatarian (middle-aged female) friends -- they'll be debating, say, the shortcomings of the woman that someone's son has married, with each person throwing in their opinion even though they are all already in perfect agreement with each other. Another odd tendency I've seen is the putting down of family members in front of others as a way of showing humility, since politeness in Japanese is based on raising up the status of those you want to be polite to while pushing your own status lower. For example, my mother-in-law might say to her friends that our kids are stupid (baka) and never study. We've had to go out of our way to forbid this kind of negative talk in our house.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Expensive to live in Japan, but expensive to die too

Japan can be an expensive place to live, but it can also be an expensive place to die, as well. In a crowded country like Japan, it can be very difficult to purchase a burial plot and gravestone for your future resting place, especially in the cities where population is concentrated. Many people are eager to find rest in famous places, and the most popular burial sites have been transformed into "brand graveyards" which fetch incredibly high prices, like Aoyama Reien, a graveyard dating back from the Edo Period which will set you back an incredible $1.1 million for an average-sized family plot -- but since there are 61 applicants for every available space, good luck getting in. There are even "grave mansions" or buildings that are basically multi-level apartments for the dead (the word mansion has come to mean a high-rise apartment in Japanese). When it comes time for haka-mairi, or making a visit to your family grave, you press a button and the box storing your family's remains and gravestone is delivered by a computer-controlled hydraulic system.

Graves work a little differently than they do in the U.S., too. For one thing, a grave is really part of a household, and there's only one for the whole family. When a woman gets married and comes to live with her husband, she's erased from her father's family register and moved to her husband's. When she dies, she'll be buried in her new family's grave (unless she gets divorced), and a famous if old-fashioned way to propose to a woman is to say "Let's be buried in the same grave together" (onaji ohaka ni hairimasho). Part of the complex system of customs that kick in when a person dies involves cremation, and in each city there is a municipal crematorium to handle this important job. When a person's body is cremated, it's common to include items that were important to the person, such as a beloved book, photographs of loved ones or his favorite brand of cigarettes, so that the ashes are mingled together; some items, such as golf clubs, can't be cremated because they give off dioxin when burned. After the cremation, the bones are removed using long chopsticks by family members and placed in a special box, with the nodo-botoke or Buddha-of-the-throat, the Adam's Apple, removed last. Recently, the graves of famous people are being outfitted with strong locks to foil thieves who seek to steal the bones or ashes of their favorite celebreties. Yasu's family grave has had pieces chipped off -- because his grandfather fought in World War II and came back safe, his grave is considered to be lucky, so people chip off pieces so they can take some of the good luck with them.

When you learn a language, some things are hard and others are easy. To study Spanish or French, for example, I'd have to deal with feminine and masculine nouns, which may be difficult for English speakers. Poor Japanese have to memorize the names of the twelve months in English, but in Japanese, the months are very easy to learn: just use the number (ichi, ni, san) and the character for moon (gatsu). The Japanese get their revenge for this linguistic ineqality though: in English, we use the simple words "wear" or "put on" for clothes and other items, but the Japanese have several different words for this concept. For anything going on your legs or feet (shoes, pants, etc.) the verb for to wear is haku. For shirts or dresses, the verb is kiru (the "ki" from this verb is part of the word kimono, which really just means "thing that you wear"). Put something on your hands, like a ring or gloves, and you use suru (which means "to do"), and anything worn on the head is kaburu. Gaijin invariably get these words wrong, to the quiet amusement of everyone around us.