Saturday, March 12, 2005

What the month of March means to the Japanese

The month of March means different things to different people. In Japan it's a time of partings (wakare no kisetsu), the end of the school year, when young people who are going on to different schools make teary farewells to their friends. It's also the time of year that drivers have to endure Japan's "road construction hell," as local governments hurry to use up their budgets before the end of Japan's fiscal year. Everywhere I drive, I know I'll face constant delays as roads are torn up and put down again, in an eternal cycle of government-sponsored inefficiency. The main problem is a law that dictates that 100% of the taxes collected on cars and gasoline must be used to build more roads, with no exceptions, despite the fact that Japan already has plenty of roads that work just fine. It's a major political issue here, with most of the old guard in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party supporting the ongoing wasting of resources because of effective lobbying by construction companies. Japan spends a whopping $9 billion a year on its roads, an amazing sum considering that the U.S. spends $11 billion yet is 25 times as large. The idea that Japan's leaders are so ineffectual that they can't fix this terrible situation makes me grieve for my adopted country.

Besides Akihabara, Japan's electronics and "otaku culture" hub, there are other parts of Tokyo that are popular with foreign visitors. Akasaka is one such place, the home of one of the most famous Shinto shrines in the area, the Hie Shrine. A fun corner of the city that sports hundreds of shops and restaurants, it's a good place to visit if you're coming to Tokyo. Another famous shrine is Meiji Jingu, a beautiful and solemn island oddly located in Harajuku, a hip playground for the FRUiTs generation. Finally, one of my favorite spots in the Kanto area is Kamakura, a small city south of Yokohama that features the second largest statue of Buddha in Japan (the largest is in Nara). The capital of Japan during the Kamakura Era (1185-1333), the city is just beautiful, with many fabulous shrines and temples to explore. Make sure you ride the Enoshima train line, an old-style train from the early Showa era that's as famous as the cable cars in San Francisco.

Japanese love to wear American brands on their clothes, because sporting corporate logos for U.S. companies is very kakko ii (cool). Now you can do the reverse, with our latest wacky Japanese T-shirt, an elegant parody design based on the "i-Mode" mobile telephone service of NTT Docomo -- one of the most famous corporations in Japan -- with the kanji for the love (pronounced the same, ai) in place of the capital "I." We've got a beautiful gold men's shirt and stylish pink-and-sparkly fitted tee for girls. Gaijin usually seem to be especially fascinated with the kanji character for "love" (which is one of the most complex and aesthetically beautiful characters), and we hope you like this new original design.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Reflections on Japanese TV, and the history of Loose Socks

One of our favorite Japanese TV shows is Trivia no Izumi (the Fountain of Trivia, a title that sounds similar to the famous Trevi Fountain in Rome), which brings totally unnecessary knowledge to viewers every Wednesday night on Fuji TV. Originally a late-night show with a large cult following, the show hit it big when it was moved to "golden time" (9 pm), reaching incredibly high ratings of over 20%. The trivia they present is always fun and always useless. Which Japanese snack would world-class pastry chefs in Paris choose as the most delicious? (Lotte "March of the Koalas") How fast does a piece of fingernail fly when you cut your nails? (39 km/hour) If you shot a Smith & Wesson .44 bullet at a samurai sword, which would win? (the sword cut the bullet in half every time, until they used a machine gun on it) Every week a panel of celebrities that includes popular swimsuit idol Megumi, half-Japanese/half-British actress Becky, and of course the Chairman, aka famous comedian Tamori, gives points to each bit of trivia by pressing buttons that make a sound like "hey!" (but in reality, heeh is a sound that Japanese say when they're told something thought-provoking, meaning, "You don't say?"). Incredibly, the show is showing in the U.S. as Hey! Spring of Trivia on Spike TV on Thursdays at 10 pm ET, and we recently caught our first episode on video. My son was thrilled to see the show in English, although he said the voice-overs were a little dasai (dorky). The official page for the show is here.

Another program we often watch is NHK's Eigo de Shaberanaito ("I've Got to Speak English"), an interesting show that helps Japanese trying to learn English stay motivated. Every week, actress Yumiko Shaku and (slightly annoying) American talent Patrick Harlan take up various topics related to language learning, usually featuring Japanese guests interviewing stars from the U.S. like Jodie Foster, Julie Andrews and Matt Damon. Because the show is produced by NHK, they're able to get many interesting guests, like former undersecretary of the U.N. Yasushi Akashi, and Natsuko Toda, the "Queen of Subtitles" who translates all the top American films into Japanese. It's always an interesting program for anyone interested in learning a language.

Loose socks are the bulky, oversized socks that are worn by millions of high school girls in Japan every day, which look sort of like leg warmers to the untrained eye. They were invented by Akira Tokita, the "God of Socks" whose created the trend at the beginning of the 90's, and they were an instant hit. The socks are so bulky and heavy that they'd fall down unless held up some way, so Japanese use water-based glue called "socks glue" to glue the top of the socks to their legs. J-List sells 70 and 120 cm length versions of these socks, which are very warm in addition to being a cool pop culture item from Japan. We've even got socks glue.