Saturday, August 06, 2005

The Otaku Standardized Test and origin of the word, Japan's hot summer, and aloe flavored yogurt

Hello again from Japan, and a special weekend update to J-List!

I've written before about how the Japanese like to take tests, and there are national qualification exams for just about everything, from English to kanji to using an abacus to preparing sashimi, and even a test for people who like to memorize train schedules. Getting these qualifications is one way to get ahead in Japan, and having a lot of them under your belt can help you get a better job. Now several companies in Akihabara have gotten together to create the first Otaku Standardized Test, which allows fans of anime and manga to test their knowledge and see if they make the grade as uber-fans. The test is hard -- with questions like, of the following anime shows of the 1960s and 1970s, which was not directed by Tetsuo Imazawa? -- and is of course only in Japanese. The official page of the Otaken can be found at The word otaku originally is a polite term for "you" or "your family" but has come to stand for anyone with a strong interest in anime, manga, model trains, or any other aspect of Japan's popular sub-culture. There are several theories about how this everyday Japanese word attained this unique alternate meaning. According to one, the fact that "otaku" was spoken frequently by characters in the original Macross series caused fans to start using it, creating the beginnings of the otaku movement. Alternately, many of the employees of General Products, the model company that would go on to become the mighty Gainax, hail from Tottori Prefecture (the only part of Japan to sport its own mini-desert), and in the local dialect, "otaku" is the most commonly used second-person pronoun.

Japan's oh-so-hot summer continues, with temperatures hovering around 35 degrees (95 Farenheit, although I had to look that up, since I've lived in Japan so long). It's so hot that the plastic in my Star Wars figures starts to get soft, which makes them fall over easily. As bad as it is out here in Gunma (about 100 km northwest of Tokyo), it's much worse in Japan's capital, thanks to the "heat island" effect. With all those people running their air conditioners, and all that black asphalt and reflective glass, Tokyo is often 3-4 degrees Celsius hotter than other parts of the country. It's hotter at night, too, since the heat is stored in the concrete and can't be radiated away because of all the other buildings. The average temperature in the capital has gone up a full 3 degrees Celsius over the past century, a pace far higher than global warming, mainly due to the heat island effect. Which is just one more reason why I'm glad I don't live in Tokyo.

Our English-translated PC dating-sim games are a fun way to interact with Japan on a new level. Several of our games are backordered right now while we reprint them, but we've gotten two titles back in stock today, Chain and Tsuki - Possession. Also, we've posted our popular "Special Set" of G-Collections games (DOR plus any 2 or 3 games) to the site, by customer request. We did have a problem with two titles recently reprinted titles, Come See Me Tonight and Crescendo. If you bought these games but had issues installing them, please contact us and we'll make arrangements for replacement discs to be sent to you right away.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

iTunes Music Store comes to Japan, on Japanese drinking culture, and some happy news at J-List

After a long wait, Apple's iTunes Japan music store has finally opened, allowing customers here to download Japanese and international music for around $1.75 per song. Despite the large number of digital-savvy users in Japan, it's not at all surprising to me that it took so long for Apple to get the iTunes store up and running. Japan can be a very conservative place, and to big companies with established businesses, nothing is more terrifying than change, any change at all. Apple has had to navigate between greedy record companies who have kept the prices of CDs at the artificially high price of $30 for decades, and industry groups like the Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers (JASRAC) and the Recording Industry of Japan (RIAJ), who have closed ranks against any kind of digital distribution of music that doesn't guarantee more profits for them than conventional CDs. A big problem was JASRAC's insistence that Apple follow "Japan's rules" when it came to selling music online, which apparently meant that the industry group was to receive 7.7% of every song sold in addition to what the actual copyright holders receive. It's all very silly when you think about the fact that in Japan, you can go into any one of thousands of CD rental shops and rent a whole album for $3 or less. Sadly, Japan's copyright-happy record industry lacked the vision to allow Apple to sell Japanese music to customers outside of Japan, so worldwide fans of JPOP are shut out from participating in the Japan iTMS. Apple isn't the first company that's had to endure pressure from the establishment in Japan: Amazon was blocked from selling products below list price on their site here, since price fixing is still allowed for some products, like books and CDs. If there's one good thing that's come from the past decade of recession in Japan, it's that many of Japan's closed economic doors have been forced open, letting the light of competition and common sense flood in. If you want to see a hilarious commercial that marries the iPod with Sazae-san, one the most popular anime in Japan's history, check this out (Quicktime required).

The Japanese do drink a lot, from beer to sake to harder stuff. Letting alcohol act as a lubricant in human relationships is a time-honored social practice in Japan, and one of the first words I learned when I came here in 1991 was nomunication, a word that combines nomu (to drink) with the English word communication. Japanese drinking establishments differ somewhat from those in the U.S., of course, with different mixes of atmosphere and menu. One of the most popular places to throw some back with friends at are izakaya (ee-ZA-ka-ka, roughly meaning "a place to sit and drink in"), comfortable Japanese-style restaurants that serve beer in large glasses along with various Japanese meals, from sashimi to squid pizza to yakitori. Back in the old days I used to frequent small bars called "snacks" (an odd word which came from the fact that they sell light meals along with alcohol), where you can sing karaoke and get a "bottle keep" (i.e. your own private bottle) for drinking with friends. There are also places that pattern themselves after American and European models, which use English words like "bar" or "pub" to describe themselves. Last week I was in Tokyo with friends, and we found the cutest Irish pub in Shibuya that served a good range of beers we can't usually find in Japan. Japanese usually learn to drink in college, where in the past they would be cheered on by friends while they chugged a huge class of beer. This practice, called ikki nomi (beer chugging) became a problem when a college freshman drank too much too fast and died. Now saying ikki! ikki! ikki! while someone drinks is quite taboo.

Congratulations to J-List's own Daisuke, who's baby boy was born yesterday. We're having quite a population explosion around here -- Yasu's wife is pregnant with their second daughter and is ready to pop any day now, Jun's wife has their first bun in the oven, and Dawn in San Diego (whose important job it is to cut the paychecks) also has a little bundle of joy coming too. If you want to see what we look like, check the About J-List page.

Are you in or near Louisiana and looking for an anime convention to go to? If so, then we recommend Mechacon, held on Aug 26-28. We won't be at the show, but some friends of our will, so please go and say hello to them.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Lightning strikes, space-faring Japanese astronauts, and interesting tips on learning kanji

Lightning strikes! Twice before the J-List office has had the bad luck of being struck by lightning, frying our main air conditioning unit and causing us to spend a week or so sweltering in the heat and humidity of Japan's high summer. Well, it's happened again, and currently the J-List staff is trying to work in near-sauna conditions. Fortunately the lightning also knocked out the ice cream freezer at my parents' liquor shop, so we had an excuse to eat all the ice cream before it melted.

One thing I've learned about the Japanese: nothing makes them more pleased than when one of their own attains international recognition, and writers like Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata, directors like Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki, and athletes like Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki all occupy a special place in the hearts of their fans at home for this reason. So you can imagine that Japan is pretty proud of its latest hero, astronaut Soichi Noguchi, who went up in the U.S. Space Shuttle Discovery. Every time I turn on the television I see footage of Noguchi-san, making jokes while floating in zero-g or talking to his fans on the ground. As a former English teacher, I'm happy to see men like him become the new heroes to kids in Japan, and I hope it encourages more young Japanese to try harder to master English. Yesterday morning the crew of the shuttle was awakened with a broadcast of Japanese children singing the theme song to My Neighbor Totoro ("Let's Take a Walk") because it was the day of his first spacewalk outside the ship. Urayamashii! (OO-ra-ya-ma-SHE, which means "[I am] so envious [of him]!")

There's no doubt about it: the most complex part of learning Japanese is kanji, unless you're fortunate enough to already be fluent in Chinese. An educated Japanese person generally uses around 2000 kanji, compared with 3500-5000 for the same person in China. Because the Chinese writing system was basically grafted onto the existing Japanese language in the 5th century, there are fundamentally two ways to read any character, the on (rhymes with bone) or Chinese reading, and the kun (rhymes with spoon) or Japanese reading, the latter being an existing Japanese word that's been assigned to a kanji based on the character's meaning. As a general rule, you use the Chinese reading for compound words made up of two kanji (for example, the word for hibernation, toumin, written with the characters for winter + sleep), and there are quite a few Chinese and Korean words that are the same in Japanese for this reason. The Japanese reading is usually used for kanji words that appear by themselves (e.g. the character for winter written all by itself, fuyu), or in special cases like names of people or places. It's hard to believe, but it's easier to memorize Japanese vocabulary words through kanji than, say, learning from a book which prints Japanese in romaji (the Roman alphabet) For example, the kanji for "most" can be combined with a variety of other kanji to describe ideas like tallest, shortest, etc. Examples above are, from left, saikou (most + high = highest, also meaning the best), saitei (most + bottom = the lowest, meaning a real jerk when applied to a person), saisho (most + begin = the first), saigo (most + after = the last), and saishin (most + new = the newest). The rightmost example is the above mentioned kanji for hibernation. Memorizing these words in kanji only takes two "bytes" of your brain's memory once you've gotten used to the characters themselves, but memorizing the words in the Roman alphabet would be harder since they're just a jumble of letters.

J-List loves DVDs, and we sell hundreds of unique DVDs from Japan. While most of our titles are region free, so you can play them on any standard DVD player, Japanese anime, specialized "indies" and some other discs are published as region 2, meaning you need a special player to play them. We've got two great region-free DVD players from Lasonic, the karaoke-enabled DVD7880K and the amazing DVD7050, which plays DIVX movies burned onto DVD-R, DVD-RW, you name it. We've lowered our prices on these players to just $78 and $98, so why not pick one up today?