Friday, June 24, 2005

On different regions of Tokyo, sources of Japanese drama, and funny Japanese English usage

I've written before about how different regions of Japan go out of their way to establish meibutsu (famous local speciality), some food or product that they hope will come to represent them and bring in tourist dollars. This trend is common in Japan's sprawling capital of Tokyo, too, and different parts of the city are well-known for different things. Looking for ramen? Just go to the bustling Ikebukuro district, and you'll find dozens of shops there. Ochanomizu, where Meiji University is located, has made a name for itself with guitar shops, while down the road you can find many used bookstores. Take a trip to Roppongi if you want to find some interesting bars and clubs, often employing Nigerians who hand out discount coupons to people on the street while pretending to be American (but no one is fooled). The Tsukishima area is famous for monjayaki, a pancake-like dish cooked on an open griddle, while you can find good unagi (Japanese eels) in Asakusa. And of course, everyone knows that Akihabara is the place to go for electronics in Tokyo. While Tokyo is a big concrete jungle that can really tire you out, it's also very much alive.

Each country is different, and the kinds of subjects that make good drama or comedy on television are probably just as unique. In Japan, one popular topic for depicting human drama is juken jigoku, the college entrance exam hell that eighteen-year-olds who want to go to university must endure. A story about a love story that comes to its resolution during a young person's juken study would be a very interesting Japanese story. A popular long-running drama is Wataru Seken wa Oni Bakari ("All Who Pass in this World are Ogres" although the official English title seems to be "Making It Through") which details the life and times of an extended Japanese family with five daughters. The problems they encounter range from the mundane, like fights between Nagako and her heinous mother-in-law, to issues far more serious like divorce and how to take care of aging parents.

The Japanese use a lot of English, but it's not always easy for gaijin to figure out what what's being said. "Punk" doesn't mean a tough-looking guy, but a flat tire (from the word puncture). If someone is "cunning" in Japan, it means they're cheating on a test. For some reason, the English word "glamor" has come to mean women who are well endowed. The "number" of a car refers to its license plate, something that threw me when I first heart it while hitchhiking in Northern Japan. If you "rinse" your hair, you're applying cream rinse, and if you live in a "mansion" it means you live in a nice townhouse that you own yourself. Living in Japan can be wacky!

J-List specializes in wacky Japanese T-shirts, high quality 6.1 lb 100% cotton shirts with fun messages in kanji. Now that summer is upon us, we've got some new shirt designs for girls that will make you look super. First, by customer request, we've got a "looking for a Japanese boyfriend" shirt in the same style as our best-selling "girlfriend" design, with block kanji surrounding a pink circle. We've got a fitted cap sleeve tee as well as a stylish spaghetti top. We've also got a new black "Ai-Mode" tank top for girls with sparkly pink lettering that looks great. Great limited edition T-shirts for the summer!

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

On uniformity of public works, fast food in Japan, and a cool blending of old and new

I wrote last time about Japan's use of uniforms for many professions, which can sometimes look odd when seen through the eyes of a foreigner. Japan actually goes a step further but making sure many aspects of the country are equally uniform, so that public works like roads and schools nearly always look exactly the same from one end of the country to the other. Japan's highly centralized government sets many guidelines that prefectures and cities must follow, with the end result being that a telephone pole in Tokyo will look exactly the same in Kyushu. There are some regional differences, of course -- stoplights are horizontally oriented in most of the country, except for northern Honshu and Hokkaido, where they're hung vertically to avoid damage from the weight of heavy snow. Also, the massive population density of Tokyo requires that roads and other spaces that would be too cramped for the rest of Japan be permitted. Other aspects of Japanese life, from education to the rest stops throughout the nations freeways, are largely directed by the central government and are virtually the same throughout Japan.

Despite this tendency for top-down conformity throughout the various regions of the country, Japanese cities do manage to preserve a unique charm of their own. Virtually all of the cities in our prefecture are former castle towns, and usually go out of their way to build parks that incorporate old ruins, which is very nice. Whether or not a city was bombed in World War II can play a part in determining what kind of place it is today: Maebashi, the prefectural capital, was mostly destroyed ten days before the end of the war, but this has the hidden benefit of allowing the residents to rebuild the city into a more modern, beautiful city. One place I like a lot is nearby Kiryu, a small city that was an early center of silk production when Japan began to modernize in the 1870s. There are many historic buildings still standing in the city which give it a lot of Meiji-era charm. Last weekend, we went to a jazz performance held in an 100-year-old warehouse that had been converted into a "live house" (a small space for concerts). The mixture of old Japanese and modern jazz was pretty cool!

Japan has plenty of fast food, from U.S. chains like McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken to home-grown outfits like Freshness Burger, First Kitchen and MOS Burger. But the original fast food of Japan is gyudon, or beef bowl, basically a bowl of rice with steamed beef and onions on top (it's really good with raw egg, too). For the past two years, Japan's beef bowl industry has been struggling with a ban on U.S.-imported beef due to the mad cow scare. While many restaurants switched to selling similar dishes like buta-kimu bowl (pork and kim-chee on rice), Yokohama-based Sukiya has kept on selling gyudon using stock from Australia, which some say doesn't taste the same as beef from America (although I can't tell the difference). In the past, beef bowl restaurants were the sole territory of salarymen and male "freeters" (young people who work part-time jobs rather than finding full-time employment), but some chains have been redesiging their stores to be more family-friendly.

At J-List, we love to promote an interesting kind of software from Japan: English-translated dating-sim games, which allow you to interact with beautiful anime girls and try to win their hearts. We've posted our latest game to the site for preordering: Yin-Yang! -Another X-Change-, a totally new game of accidental sex change by Crowd, which we're translating now. A great all-new story that takes poor Kaoru, an average Japanese youth, and changes him into a girl, to the great shock of his circle of friends.