Friday, March 18, 2005

The history of the Pocky company and Japan's tiny land mass

Hello again from Japan, the home of such products as Mapple (map book), Crunky (crunchy chocolate) and Quickle Wiper (floor cleaner).

Since Japan is such a small country, with half the population of the U.S. yet only 1/25 the area, people here have to be somewhat innovative when it comes to how they use their land. I see this smart use of space quite often: building a baseball field in the floodplain of a river or creating gas stations with pumps built into the roof, with a long hose reaching down to the car. They also have these funky tall parking garages that are basically giant elevators which store cars vertically. Graves are very space-saving, too: a small plot can hold the bones and ashes of dozens of family members. Think of old castles or temples and Kyoto might come to mind, but the culture of Gunma, where J-List is based, is ancient, too. Gunma has the highest number of "kofun," or burial mounds, which were built between the 3rd and 7th century, before kanji and Buddhism entered Japan through Korea. Since it's forbidden to build on land occupied by a burial mound, the Japanese often erect parks around them, which provide children with a fun place to play while instilling them with a sense of their country's past, another innovative way to make use of land.

The history of Japanese companies can be interesting. One famous company is Glico, purveyors of Pocky, Pretz and many other delicious snacks from Japan. At the start of the 20th century, the son of Riichi Ezaki died suddenly. Saddened, Ezaki went a seaside fishing village where he happened upon some children playing. They were exceptionally healthy, which caused Ezaki to look into the reason for their good health. He determined that a compound found in oysters called glycogen was a factor, and in 1919 he resolved to found a company that would manufacture sweets for Japan's children that would improve their health, to be named Glico, after the glycogen compound. The now-famous image of the Glico Running Man was adopted because one piece of candy contains the energy you need to run a 100 meter dash. He had trouble gaining traction against the other two large confectionery companies, Meiji and Morinaga, until he thought of an idea: package an omake (oh-MAH-kay) or small toy with the candy, which greatly increased sales. Pocky was created in 1965 and was in instant hit. The name comes from the sound the biscuit sticks make when broken (pokki!). J-List sells over 100 varieties of snacks including all flavors of Pocky (at least until Japan's humid summer arrives, when we temporarily remove them from stock).

J-List loves to bring you hard-to-find products from Japan, and we've been happy to make the DVD films of Hayao Miyazaki available to you over the years, like My Neighbor Totoro, Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind and Spirited Away. Now there's a great new Ghibli DVD that features a documentary of the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, interviews with the creators, and shows the actual locations in Europe that the director has based his films in. The DVD is fully subtitled so you can enjoy all the great information. The disc is region 2, another great excuse to get a region free DVD player if you don't have one already ^_^

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The nature of competition in Japan, and all about Japanese bathing

One unique aspect of Japan is how many industries have to deal with competition from the government, which interferes with the private sector in ways that wouldn't be acceptable in the U.S. When you think of your local post office, you probably think of stamps and mail delivery, but the government-run Japanese Post Office does a lot more: it's the world's largest bank with some $3.2 trillion in cash deposits in postal savings accounts. The Post Office has so much money sloshing around that it uses it to build subsidized entertainment facilities around the country, like hotels and a giant sprawling indoor pool near Nikko which never has anyone using it. It also sells life insurance, something that's totally unnecessary in Japan, a country with a strong and competitive insurance industry. Prime Minister Koizumi aims to convert the Japan Post Corporation into a private company, hopefully repeating the successful privatizations of the Kokutetsu railroad monopoly (now known as the six JR companies), Japan's largest tobacco company JT (once operated directly by government, ugh) and Japan's old telephone company (now known as NTT, one of Japan's most vibrant businesses).

My son just finished with his final tests, his last of the third grade. He did really well in his science final, only missing one question, which was about the shadow cast by a stick in the ground. Over the course of several hours, the position of the shadow moves -- why? My son, who is no fool, wrote that the Earth is moving, but he was disappointed to find this marked wrong, however -- "the sun moves in the sky" was what was in the textbook, and that's what he was expected to write. We took the teacher to task on this, which surprised him, since questioning educators is seldom done in Japan. In the end, I think we taught our son an important lesson about not automatically accepting what he hears.

I love Japanese public baths (sento) and hot springs (onsen, pronounced OWN-sen), and take my kids almost every week -- sometimes twice a week. Public baths hail back from the Edo period when people didn't have private baths in their homes, and had to go to community facilities to bathe. Volcanic hot springs also have a long history, and popular onsen towns like Kusatsu, located in the mountains near J-List, have been in use as resort towns for hundreds of years. Once my son saw a young boy in the bath and asked me why he had a blue bruise on his rear end. This is the Mongolian Spot (mokohan in Japanese, "the Old Spot of Mongol"), a blue bruise-like spot which is found on Chinese, Japanese and Mongolian children, including my own kids when they were young. The spots go away when the children reach age five or so. In Japanese, the word for someone who is still a wet-behind-the-ears greenhorn is ao ni-sai (AH-oh NEE-sai, "still blue 2-year-old"), which probably has something to do with this spot.

Monday, March 14, 2005

White Day in Japan, and the many ways to learn Japanese

Today is White Day, the day that Japanese confectioners and retailers have decreed that men give a return gift (o-kaeshi) to women who gave them chocolate on Valentines Day, one month ago. While white chocolate is a favorite, other popular items include candy, cute character goods that say "thank you" and more. As with many aspects of gift giving in Japan, there's often a lot of giri (obligation, what you're expected to do) and very little kimochi (feeling, what you earnestly want to do), so that there's a built-in falseness to the whole thing -- but of course, no one is supposed to take a day like White Day too seriously. If you're a man and got some chocolate from a woman on Valentines Day, be sure and give her something today to show your gratitude!

Ever since the first steam locomotive started operating between Tokyo and Yokohama in 1872, trains have been a large part of Japan's transportation system and economy. Rail lines run everywhere in Japan, and if you live in a large city, it's usually quite easy to forego owning a car entirely. During my time as a teacher, I've taught English to many young people who were huge train otakus, who loved to travel around Japan to take photos of and ride on famous trains, like the famous Yufuin no Mori express in Kyushu, the Tsubasa, the only shinkansen that can also run on normal tracks, or the Nozomi 800, the fastest train in Japan. Like all boys here, my son went through a phase when he decided that he loved trains more than anything else, and I had a lot of fun learning all the names of Japan's famous trains with him. Our favorite one of all is the double-decker MAX, which stands for "multi amenity express" in case you were wondering.

There are many approaches to learning a foreign language -- the Army Method (stress on learning through memorization), the Grammar Translation Method (learning a language by parsing its grammar), the Communicative Method (leaning by speaking and listening in the target language), and the Natural Approach (trying to replicate the steps that children go through when they learn a language). Then there's the "get attention" method, which I'll label the Social Feedback Method to give it a proper name. Basically, you learn whatever vocabulary and phrases that will make you the life of the party among your new linguistic group, be it cute ways to begin conversations with attractive Japanese girls or interesting phrases that will amuse people around you. I have a friend who worked his way across Asia using this method, learning just enough of the local languages to be social and have fun with his hosts, and he swears by it. For myself, I learned Japanese at the excellent language program at SDSU, and added to my studies by reading manga, transcribing songs to memorize them for singing at karaoke bars, and making friends at the Japanese-American Friendship Club at our university.