Friday, March 25, 2005

Video games in Japan, and information on tuxedos for Chihuahuas

Every few weeks my kids bug me to take them to the "ge-sen," or game center, and I give in and take them. Japanese video game arcades are fun, with lots of different things to do as long as you don't mind blowing $20 in a half an hour or so. In addition to the standard fighting, scrolling and sports-related games (which are always $1, and often $2, per play), there are usually some large-scale games that let you bang on Japanese taiko drums, play air guitar and even take a virtual dog for a walk. Lots of games are based on anime, like a Lupin the 3rd game in which you have to shoot fast to keep Inspector Zenigata from catching you, and a great driving game based on races from Initial D. My son and I have been hooked on a Gundam game in which you fight battles from the first two series, choosing any mobile suit you want. Gambling is a popular pasttime with adults, and many games give customers the thrill of betting on little mechanical horses that run around a track or let them put valueless tokens into slot machines. Japanese arcades are also well stocked with "UFO Catcher" machines, a.k.a. crane games with prizes you can grab, as well as Puri-kura, the "print club" machines that take your picture and print it on a sheet of stickers for you. It's common to find off-color games in arcades, too, like 1-on-1 video mahjong against a pretty anime girl.

As the number of children in Japan decreases, more and more people are turning to pets for companionship, especially dogs. Japan has been in the middle of a boom in "brand dogs" for the past few years, with famous breeds like Welsh Corgi, Shiba Inu and Miniature Dachshund commanding $1000 and up in pet stores. When high-interest finance company Aiful made a TV commercial about a man who needed to borrow money so we could buy a little dog tuxedo for his Chihuahua to attend his daughter's wedding, there was a huge explosion in Chihuahuas in Japan, and now you see them everywhere. The Groomy plush pets that J-List sells are a direct result of the popularity of dogs in Japan.

J-List brings you a little piece of Japan every month in the form of our revolving magazine subscriptions for popular anime, fashion, toy beautiful idol and other magazines from Japan. We're adding to our already excellent selection of subscription items, including SHOXX, a beautiful magazine devoted to Japan's "visual rock" bands with lots of great photography in every issue; Tokyo Journal, an avante-garde English magazine of life and culture in Tokyo; and Kateigaho ("Home Art Report"), a fabulous English monthly that captures the world of traditional art and culture for non-Japanese readers. When you subscribe to these magazines, we'll send you the current issue as it comes in, until you tell us to stop sending them to you.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

What's popular in Japan right now, and how to put your foot in your mouth in Japanese

Japan is the land of the "boom." One year it's health drinks laced with amino acids, the next it's ring tones for cellular phones that mimic sounds of the office, like the whining of a fax machine or fingers typing on a calculator. Currently Japan's experiencing a "coffee boom" as a result of a popular drama on Japanese TV, Yasashii Jikan (Gentle Time), the story of a middle-aged man whose wife is killed when his teenage son has an accident with her in the car. Unable to forgive his son, he moves to Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido and starts a small coffee shop called Mori no Tokei (Clock of the Forest) where people come to find peace and calm. In the show, the customers at the coffee shop grind their own coffee with hand-turned mills, which gives them a chance to relax as they take in the slow aroma of the coffee wafting up. As a result of the show, sales of coffee beans and mills are skyrocketing, and coffee shop used in the filming of the drama is a hit with tourists.

Before I came to Japan in 1991, I took four years of Japanese at my alma mater, SDSU, so compared to most first-time gaijin here I spoke quite a lot of Japanese. I could do many useful things, like ask directions when I got lost (which was a frequent occurrence, as there are no street names in Japan), and I knew just enough Japanese for me to put my foot in my mouth really well. Yes, I've committed many faux pas during my time here, such as trying to impress a pretty girl by speaking Japanese to her, but accidentally using onna kotoba, words that women use which are the bane of male students of Japanese, or committing a deadly slip when ordering mango juice, since "mango" is dangerously close to another word (the word is manko, and it refers to the female reproductive area, but don't use it as it's really bad). In Japanese hospitals, thermometers are always used in the armpit, but I put one in my mouth, causing much shock among the nurses, who had never seen anyone do such a thing. And then there was the time I bought my wife some pretty flowers, only to find out that I'd bought kiku no hana (chrysanthemums), which are only used as offerings to the dead on special Buddhist days -- that really got a laugh out of her.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Ah, my days as a single man in Japan

Hello again from Japan! Today is a holiday here, Shunbun no Hi, or the first day of spring. It's nice to say goodbye to winter, but it's still bitterly cold outside, and the wind is howling so loudly I have to use my noise-cancelling headphones to get any work done...

I remember with fondness my single years in Japan. There was an izakaya -- kind of a bar, but with good traditional Japanese food, too -- with the odd name of AIUEO, which was a favorite hang-out of gaijin in our city. You could always find us there on Friday nights, drinking enormous beers and eating such fare as yakitori (Japanese chicken, skewered and cooked over an open flame), grilled "hokke" fish (which my dictionary tells me is arabesque, but we never knew what it was called in English at the time), and fresh sashimi (raw fish without rice, i.e. the top part of sushi, served on a plate). Those were fun times when we'd unwind with a few drinks then I'd ride home on my mountain bike -- it was the height of gaijin fashion in the 1990s to have one. Then there was the thrill of waking up the next morning to find a girl's pocket bell ("beeper") number scribbled on a chopstick wrapper and try to remember how it got there. But time marches on: even though the old drinking district where we use to roam is still there, they tore down AIUEO a few years ago to make more room for parking. (Incidentally, we have some cool miniatures of sake and izakaya food on the site today.)

The Japanese love of saving money is world famous. Although the annual savings rate has dipped a bit in recent years, the average household still has an incredible US$100,000, usually held in cash in normal bank accounts making a laughably low return -- my own bank account gives me just 0.04% per year. Getting a 1% return on savings is considered great in Japan, what with the governments "zero interest policy" of keeping money practically free to borrow to try to keep the economy moving, and my wife is especially good at sniffing out better investments. There are some interesting cultural reasons why Japanese seem to enjoy saving money, and I think it starts with "otoshidama," the custom of receiving money from relatives on New Year's Day, roughly equivalent to getting presents on Christmas (although thanks to Toys R Us, this has become a part of Japan's culture, too). I've watched as my wife has carefully cultivated an interest in saving money in my son, and now he's got $500 in his bank account from carefully saving his allowance and New Year's Day money.