Friday, August 12, 2005

The latest crime wave in Japan, wholesome words by concerned Japanese parents, and beer made specially for kids

There's a minor crime wave going on in Japan right now: serial petnapping. Japan has been in the midst of a huge "Chihuahua boom" for the past few years, thanks in part to a popular TV commercial for high-interest loans about a man who had to borrow money so he could buy a tiny dog tuxedo for his Chihuahua to be by his side at his daughters wedding. With the little dogs fetching $3000 and up these days, they've become targets of thieves who steal them and resell them on the Internet. Dogs are extremely pampered in Japan, and are treated like a member of the family in many homes, especially in Tokyo, where having a small furry companion can make existing in the concrete jungle just a little easier.

One thing I've noticed about Japanese parents: they are usually quite concerned about the well-being of their kids, and many involve themselves with their children's education more than I've seen in the U.S. Whenever I drive somewhere in my city I pass many signs that have been put up by the local junior high school PTA, which basically encapsulate a lot of the joshiki (universal common sense) that Japanese usually share on subjects like how to raise kids right. The slogans are usually general statements like "overprotective parents are the cause of weak children" and "those who don't show respect to their own mother and father won't receive it from their children." Recently I came across another interesting slogan, which used the four syllables of the English word "OASIS" (pronounced oh-AH-shi-su in Japanese) to remind readers of four phrases children should always be taught to say. They are ohayo gozaimasu ("good morning," as it's always important to greet others cheerfully in Japanese society), arigato gozaimasu ("thank you very much"), shitsurei shimashita ("excuse me," said when leaving a teacher's room as a sign of respect) and sumimasen deshita ("I'm sorry," said in apology when you've done something wrong). One of my life's goals is to drive down every street in my city and make notes on all these PTA signs, and compile them for the web, but I can't seem to find the time.

It seems Japan can always surprise you. Now a small brewery in Tokyo has created a non-achoholic beer for kids, called Kodomo no Beer, so kids can enjoy the fun of drinking a frosty one with Dad after a dip in the hot springs. See it here.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

New election and the hullabuloo over the Japanese post office, and the "joy of satori"

It's once again that time most feared by foreigners living in Japan: election season, when white-gloved Japanese politicians drive around in trucks with loudspeakers mounted on top, shouting their name and saying things like "I will work hard for you!" and "Thank you for your support on election day!" When Prime Minister Koizumi lost an important vote on his administration's goal of privatizing Japan's sprawling postal system on Monday, he disbanded the Diet and called for new elections, which will be held on September 11. Until then, we'll have to put up with lots of noisy politicians shouting at us through our windows, speaking through bullhorns in front of train stations in Tokyo, and so on.

The issue at hand is the privatization of Japan's postal apparatus, which would basically create four mostly-private corporations to manage the various postal activities more efficiently than they are at present. Japan's post office does much more than just deliver the mail in rain or sleet or snow: it's also the world's largest savings bank, holding a vast amount of money in deposits by Japanese households, and it also operates a life insurance business, too. These two businesses hold a mind-boggling $3 trillion in cash reserves, which is far too much money for politicians to resist touching, so they use it for various "economic revitalization" projects, such as a government-subsidized hot springs hotel near Nikko, with a massive indoor pool complex next to it that no one uses. The post office is Japan's largest employer, with 24,000 post offices, frankly far more than it needs for a country that's about the same size as Italy or California. Opponents of the privatization plan warn that if Japan Post starts actually seeking profits, it will close down thousands of these smaller post offices, leaving rural areas with less convenience, and this is a sensitive issue here in Japan, not unlike base closings in the U.S. Another issue is, will a privatized Japan Post be on the same playing field (or as they say in Japanese, in the same sumo ring) as Japan's private delivery companies like Yamato and Sawaga, or will receive a lot of winks and special treatment like NTT (which started out as a government-run utility before being privatized in 1985). Considering that it costs 75 cents to send a first-class letter inside Japan, about twice the rate of the U.S., I'd say there's room for more efficiency in Japan's postal system.

One of the things I've liked about my years of learning Japanese is what I've come to call the "joy of satori," a sort of thrill that jumps through your brain when you make a difficult connection, solve a puzzling kanji problem, or intuit a correct answer without really knowing why. Satori means understanding or comprehension, or written with another kanji, enlightenment in the Buddhist sense, and I believe our brains are hard-wired to feel joy when a difficult solution is finally comprehended. You can't learn a foreign language without getting lots of input in that language, and I went out of my way to read plenty of manga to learn kanji and vocabulary words, one of them being the Rumiko Takahashi classic Maison Ikkoku, the story of a man living in an apartment who's in love with his apartment manager, the widowed Kyoko. There's a secret code embedded in the series, a number system based on the names of the characters and the ten apartments in the apartment building: for example, the main character is Godai and he lives in room number 5 since go is 5 in Japanese; his neighbor Yotsuya lives in room 4 since yotsu represents that number; and so on, with Kyoko being zero, since her last name contains the character nashi (meaning "nil"). I'll never forget how I felt when I puzzled this system out for the first time -- it was a small piece of enlightenment, but it was my own.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Japanese summer festivals, the drama of high school baseball, and update on Hiroshima

It's August in Japan, and to millions of Japanese sports fans that means -- high school baseball! High school baseball is really big in Japan, and teams from each of Japan's 47 prefectures try all season long to win the right to go to Koshien (koh-SHE-en) Stadium near Osaka, where the national championships are being held right now. To go to Koshien is the dream of every young ball player, and it has a positive effect on the future careers of thousands of young men every year, whether they go on to play professional baseball or not. The drama of a Koshien race is captured in manga and anime such as the classic Touch, a comic I used to study Japanese with while at college. By an amazing coincidence, J-List is based in the city where Touch creator Mitsuru Adachi was born, and this year our prefecture is represented at Koshien by Maebashi Commercial High School, Mr. Adachi's old alma mater (and also the school that our own Yasu graduated from). We'll be rooting for them this year!

August is also the season of matsuri, or festivals, and each town in Japan hosts at least one wild festival, closing off streets to allow its citizens to dance through the town in celebration of summer. I went down to check out our city's festival, which was on last night, and had a great time. There were a dozen floats filled with children playing taiko drums and banging on gongs, and groups of men carrying omikoshi, which are portable Shinto shrines that you parade around on your shoulders while shouting washoi, washoi, washoi. All around us were young people wearing new yukata, cotton kimonos for summer, while they enjoyed the chaos all around them. Beer flows quite freely at these festivals, and more than once we were approached by inebriated Japanese men who wanted to practice their English with us. Although I could do without the heat, I sure like summer in Japan because of the festivals.

On a sadder note, Saturday was the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and a very solemn ceremony was held in the city to honor those killed on August 6, 1945. In April, I took my mother and kids to Hiroshima to see the city and experience the Peace Park, the area above ground zero that has been converted into a beautiful place to reflect on the past. The museum was especially moving, filled with displays of objects recovered after the blast, such as melted glass bottles, children's tricycles, and the famous Hiroshima Watch, stopped forever at 8:15 am. Since my children are part of both Japan and America, I wanted them to see the images or Hiroshima and know how different things had been during that terrible time. Despite being completely destroyed, the city of Hiroshima has been rebuilt into an amazing and vibrant city that all Japan can be proud of.

J-List carries hundreds of hard to find items from Japan, including cool accessories for your iPod made by Elecom, a popular maker of computer peripherals. From cool cases with carabiner clips to interesting headphones and speakers, if you've got an iPod or similar music player, there are some really unique products on our site for you. See the newly created iPod products page (under Computer Peripherals)