Friday, July 29, 2005

Japanese food for the summer including delicious eel, and a little on the nature of fame in Japan

The Japanese can be very seasonal people, going out of their way to enjoy each season for what it has to offer. Food is the same, with different meals eaten at different times of the year. Japan's summer is hot and humid, so people naturally like to eat things that keep them cool, like cold soba (buckwheat noodles) and soumen (angel hair noodles dipped in sauce and eaten). A favorite of ours is hiyashi chuka, a popular dish that's basically cold ramen noodles served in a plate of tangy sauce, with various ingredients piled on to taste, and many restaurants serve this dish in the hot summer months. Another famous food eaten in the summer is unagi, or Japanese eels, which are cooked over an open flame, painted with teriyaki sauce and served on rice. Eating eel in the summer is thought to help give you stamina to deal with the heat, and this practice has been around for a while -- summer unagi is mentioned in the Manyoshu, a collection of poems dating back to the 8th century. The traditional day for eating unagi was yesterday, and all through Japan restaurants prepared hundreds of servings of the popular dish.

One of the more interesting aspects of Japan are the geinojin (entertainers), a sprawling class of actors, singers, comedians, swimsuit idols, talk show hosts, and anyone else who appears on TV for one reason or another. Everyone wants to be in the public eye, and there are many schools set up around Japan to train young people so they can have a chance at making it big someday. As with most other aspects of Japanese life, there is a strict system of senpai (senior) and kouhai (junior), with stars who have been in the business longer having a higher status than the newer members, although this system breaks down somewhat when a given person's popularity starts to wane. Sometimes it seems that, as long as you have a genuinely original angle that no one has thought of before, just about anyone can end up on Japanese TV. Bobby is a man from Nigeria who's turned into quite a popular tarento ("talent") on Japanese television these days, popping up on various variety, comedy and even cooking shows. He's not very good at Japanese, and always seems to mess up in funny ways, although I think he's doing it on purpose.

Because I'm American and my wife is Japanese, we want our kids to grow up bilingual, but it can sure be a challenge. To help them learn more English, we send them to the U.S. every summer, where they go to various summer camps and interact with our family over there. For the next two weeks I'll be on my own, as my wife and kids will all be in the U.S. I'll have fun, driving around our prefecture in my Miata, taking myself out to Japanese onsen (hot springs), playing video games in my underwear, and running the air conditioner on full blast.

J-List is honored to be able to sell Domo-kun, the lovable brown monster that is the official spokesmonster of NHK, Japan's version of the BBC. We've got dozens and dozens of really cool Domo-kun items, from plush toys to pens to keychains and more, including the "really big Domo-kun" stuffed toys for your room. Browse our excellent selection of Domo-kun products today! "Domo" is a useful Japanese phrase that can mean almost anything, from thank you to excuse me.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Ways to learn a foreign language, and on receiving complements about your use of chopsticks

Attempting to master a foreign language is a big undertaking, and if you want to become fluent someday you need to jump in with both feet. Nearly all Japanese I've met who have learned English really well were able to do so because they embraced not just the language itself, but the culture behind it, from music to movies to sports and more. When I was studying Japanese at SDSU, I went out of my way to use the language as much as I could, finding activities that helped make my studies more fun. I read a lot of manga, which are much easier to read than normal books and which provide lots of input of spoken Japanese, since comic books contain lots of dialogue between characters. I also learned about Japan through its popular music, listening to tapes my Japanese friends made for me and learning to sing Japanese songs at karaoke bars in San Diego. I probably overdid it a little -- when I was dating my wife in the early 90s, she was amazed that there could be an American who hadn't heard of singer Michael Bolton (who was at the top of his career at the time). I had listened to so much Japanese music I had missed him entirely.

Although Japanese kitchens are well stocked with spoons, forks and knives, most meals in Japan are eaten with chopsticks. Children usually learn to use chopsticks around the age of 4, when they start attending preschool, and this is quite possibly the first of many adjustments to the larger Japanese group that children have in their school lives. Every foreigner living in Japan knows the anguish of being told by a Japanese person hashi ga jozu ("you use chopsticks very well"). While one popular response is to compliment the speaker on their use of a knife and fork, I've found you can have more fun telling them okagesama de (oh-KA-gay sah-mah deh). This is a complex phrase which literally means "Yes, thanks to you," almost as if you had leaned how to use chopsticks from the person, even though you've never met them before. The phrase is a useful way of showing Japanese-style humility whenever someone compliments you on something, and since few would expect a gaijin to know it, it's fun to see their surprised expressions.

J-List offers many cool magazines from Japan via our revolving reserve subscription service, making it easy to get the newest anime, manga, JPOP, toy, and mature magazines sent to you every month. Some of the most popular monthlies are fashion magazines that let you keep your finger on contemporary Tokyo style, like FRUiTs (Harajuku street fashion), Kera (urban + gothic), Egg ("kogal" fashions for free-spirited Tokyo girls), and Super Cawaii (the newest fashion trends, worn by Japan's top models). Men in Tokyo can be quite fashionable too, and for guys who want to be in sync with Japan's trends we recommend the newly-posted Men's Egg, which reports on what's hot and what's cool in Japan. All magazines we offer via our direct subscription service are loaded with beautiful color photographs, so you can enjoy them even if you don't read Japanese.

J-List also sells many unique items from Japan that are great for the upcoming "back to school" season, including Japanese pencil cases with interesting characters, notebooks with funny English on them, study tools for getting better grades, and pens, pencils and other stationery items from Japan, always a pleasure to use. We're adding more and more of these items to the site this month, for anyone looking to have something unique in school this fall, either for themselves or their kids. We also humbly recommend our wacky Japanese T-shirts and hoodies for the coming fall.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Peter's new cell phone, and the roles of men and women in Japan

One of the benefits from living in Japan is having access to cool keitai denwa, cellular phones. The three main providors of cell phone service in Japan are giant NTT Docomo, KDDI's stylish au, and European-owned Vodafone, and they duke it out in the marketplace trying to provide the best service area, phones and features. NTT is the Microsoft of Japan, and their phones are all top of the line, however you pay for the privilege of using them. I much prefer the stylish phones that au makes, and recently upgraded my phone to the brand-new W31T, a slim phone which sports Bluetooth, 2.4 Mbps remote web surfing, support for Qualcomm's Brew applications, a camera so good I've thrown away my digital camera forever, and a web browser that can display normal websites. Although it's only been 8 months since I've upgraded, I was floored by all the new features that hadn't been in existence when I checked last time, including a phone with a TV receiver on it, a "tough phone" with stylish plastic guards that you can submerge in water without problem, a phone with stero surround sound speakers, and more. And of course they all play music like the iPod.

One could write a book on the subject of women in Japan, and quite a few have, I'm sure. As with many aspects of Japan, it's common for Westerners to see the country as being "behind" America and Europe with regard to social equality between men and women, but I'm not sure that this is really the case. Oh, it's true that the roles of women in Japan seems to be somewhat below that of men, and there are fewer well-known female business and political leaders in the public eye. In nearly all households, the majority of income is brought in by the husband, who is the daikoku bashira or the "big, black pillar" that supports the family, while the household and its finances are managed expertly by the wife (as it is in my household). There are women with careers to be sure, but it's more common for women to concern themselves with the household and children more and with work less, at least until the kids are grown. It might be incomprehensible to many, but by and large Japanese females seem to prefer things the way they are -- so rather than being behind the West, I like to think that Japan is just "striking a different balance" between men and women that suits the way its people are.

We love to bring you interesting things from Japan that you never knew exited, a concept which is pretty much embodied in the OH! Mikey series, a bizarre but hilarious comedy show about the Fuccon family, who moved from America to Japan . The show is acted out with mannequins who never change their poses at all, and it will have you in stitches all the way through. In addition to the latest OH! Mikey release (disc 7), we're happy to have the original volumes back on the site, including vol. 1-3 which had gone out of print temporarily. The discs are all fully subtitled in English, however since they're region 2 discs you'll need a region free player to view them on (we humbly recommend the two excellent Lasonic players we stock).

We also feel it's part of J-List's mission to promote the study of Japanese, and we sell many items that help you learn the language. We've got a great new item for you today: the Best of YesJapan, a DVD with over 4 hours of the best episodes of YesJapan's originally produced TV show George & Keiko, which helps you not only learn Japanese but pick up fun information about the country and language. The DVD includes some of the best episodes, including "Tricks to sound good in Japanese," "Techniques to impress your Japanese friends," and the infamous "Date with Keiko" episodes. See this item, and all items in fact, on the J-List or sites.