Friday, August 26, 2005

Typhoon update, life in Gunma Prefecture, and ways that the Japanese walk to their own beat

Florida is getting pummeled by Hurricane Katrina, but Japan just got walloped by Typhoon No. 11, which dumped tons of water on the country before heading out to sea this morning. I was in Tokyo for the day but decided to cut my trip short and head home, lest the rain and high winds cause Japan's train system to shut down, stranding me. As summer winds down, Japan will enter its typhoon season proper, and we can expect to see one or two every week (shudder).

J-List is based in Gunma, located in the center of Japan's main island of Honshu, about 100 km from Tokyo. It's small -- just a little larger than Delaware -- but has more than 2 million residents, mostly spread throughout the major cities of Maebashi, Takasaki, Isesaki and Ota. I like my prefecture a lot -- we have access to Tokyo via normal train and Shinkansen, yet we don't have to endure the pressures of usagi-goya (rabbit hutch) living in Japan's capital, and mountains and skiing are just a short drive away. Currently, Gunma is enjoying center stage on NHK, Japan's public television network. In addition to creating such varied works as samurai dramas (Yoshitsune, Shinsengumi), anime series (Cardcaptor Sakura, Nadia) and cute characters (Domo-kun), NHK broadcasts a popular daily drama for 15 minutes each day. The current 15-minute drama is called Fight!, the story of a headstrong girl (Yu-chan) and the troubles her family endures when her father's company goes bankrupt. Since the drama is based in Gunma, people here are bursting with pride at being seen from all over the nation.

Japan is a unique country, truly an island nation among the other nations of the world. Often, the joshiki (joh-SHKI, meaning "common sense") that operates in the U.S. and Europe just doesn't function the same way here. First of all, the way products are priced in stores defies my humble gaijin's logic -- when you see a can of beer on sale for 200 yen, you know instinctively that a six pack of the same beer will cost you 1200 yen, with no discount for buying bulk. Sometimes two sizes of canned coffee are sold in the same vending machine, for the same price, and many Japanese choose the smaller can. Because products such as books and CDs are sold at list price, the laws of supply and demand are often stifled as the prices of products that are less popular can't fall below list price to meet the matching level of demand. Finally, it's a given that many industries will function with very low efficiency here, even in this modern Internet-enabled world we live in. I'm currently reading the weekly re-issue of manga classics Touch and Miyuki, and when I missed buying an issue in the stores, I called the company's back issue hotline to find out how to get the one I missed. It turns out that I have to go through a laborious method of wiring money to them through a bank, since they have no website and don't accept credit cards.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Japan's population peaks, immigration, and all about Japanese car names

Hello again from Japan. I've made the 6760 miles (10,879 km) hop from Baltimore to Japan, and have slipped into my "Japan mode" once again. As always, going from one side of the world to the other brings with it some head spinning, no matter how many times I do it, and I spend a few surreal hours re-adjusting to my new surroundings. I wasn't the only one to return to Japan yesterday -- my kids also arrived at the airport, having flown by themselves for the first time. We'd sent them to the U.S. so they could be immersed in English, and as usual, they soaked up an amazing amount. To celebrate being back together as a family, we went out to eat at our favorite ramen restaurant.

Japan has one of the lowest birth rates among developed countries, with just 1.38 children born per woman, compared with 2.08, 1.66, 1.37 and 1.26 for the U.S., England, Germany and Spain. The difference between Japan and other countries is that Japan is an island nation with a very low level of immigration to pick up the slack, which is causing depopulation at an alarming rate. And now it's looking like Japan's population is going to peak, either this year or next, at around 127.74 million, before starting a long decline as more people die than are born each year. Since fixing the problems of a low birth rate are beyond the capabilities of any government, Japan needs to do something about opening its doors to foreigners who want to come here to work and build lives, as I have done, if its wants to keep vitality in its society. It's a difficult question, both politically and socially, but it must be faced sooner or later. At Otakon, there was a booth sponsored by the Japanese government with a banner that read Yokoso! Japan ("Welcome to Japan"), trying to get the fans at the show to consider taking a trip to Japan to see its many beautiful sights. I think they need to go a step further, and start encouraging people to consider making a permanent move here.

The science of Japanese car names is always interesting to study. Above all, car names must sound kakko ii (cool, stylish), and since nothing sounds cooler to the Japanese ear than English, most cars here get their names from English words -- like Honda Life and Subaru Legend, or Nissan's Sunny and March. But many other names come from slightly altered English, so that they cause the same emotional response while remaining unique. Words like Corolla or Tercel or Sylphy or Premacy sound like English, but car companies can still "own" the original names. In recent years, Japanese car companies have started mining Spanish as a source for car names, resulting in cars like Daihatsu's little van Vamos (I love that name), Nissan's El Grand, Toyota's Carina and Familia, and Mitsubishi's Diamante and Viento, and the oddly named Pajero (which means something strange in Spanish). Japanese cars must never, ever have Japanese names, since that would be kakko warui (un-cool, bad style) -- Japanese are always amused to learn that the Suzuki Jiminy was sold as Suzuki Samurai in the U.S. However, there are some cars whose names started out as Japanese words before being "English-ified." Toyota Camry, for example, gets its name from "kanmuri," which means crown in Japanese -- which is funny, since Toyota sells a higher-priced sedan here called Toyota Crown, and in the past as sold the Toyota Corona, which means crown in Spanish.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Otakon and comparisons to Woodstock, all about Japanese politics, and Buddhism

Hello again from J-List. Well, Otakon is over, the 20,000+ anime fans have gone home, and I'm headed back to Japan today. It's been great seeing all the fans with their cosplay, brimming with the vibrant energy of the Anime Generation. The only thing I can compare a convention like this to is Woodstock, back in my parents' day, but luckily for us, great anime events like this happen every year.

While I've been away, Japan has been embroiled in debate about the upcoming election, when voters will shake up the allotment of seats to Japan's various political parties in an effort to determine the future of Prime Minister Koizumi's plan to privatize postal services. Japan's system of political parties is quite different from the U.S., and politics in general can be a challenge for gaijin like me to follow. First, there's the mighty Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled almost uninterrupted since it was formed in 1955. Opposition parties include the Democratic Party of Japan (the strongest alternate party, which hopes for big gains this election), the New Komeito (the unofficial political party of the Sokka Gakkai conservative Buddhist movement, although they won't admit to this publically), the Japan Communist Party and so on. But since the LDP is so large and strong, often the real battles take place between the various factions inside the party, which are basically parties within the larger group. The Mori faction (which Mr. Koizumi belongs to) is backing reforming the postal services, while many members of the Hashimoto faction (famously tied to pork-barrel construction projects, which are legion in Japan) are opposing the privatization, even to the point of quitting the LDP and making a new party, the Kokumin Shinto or New People's Party. Incidentally, the word for faction (habatsu) is often shortened to just ha when denoting this or that group. So if you're a Mac user, then you're Mac-ha (pronounced Makku-ha); if you prefer soba noodles over udon, you are soba-ha, and so on. Just a little tidbit of Japanese language for you ^_^

Although the people regularly mix themes from other religions as if they were fashions (Christian weddings, Shinto prayers for good luck on the New Year, and so on), by and large Japan is a Buddhist nation. In many homes, you can find a butsudan, or a Buddhist altar, basically a place where you go to say prayers and revere family members who have passed on (since Buddhism in Japan, at least in the Nichirenshu sect that my wife's family practices, is all about remembering one's ancestors). Once, my kids got into a fight over something, and to change the subject I asked my daughter (who is quite a spiritual girl) to show me how to pray properly at the butsudan, something she does every morning before she goes off to school. I thought, light some incense, how hard can that be? My daughter surprised me by bringing out some small prayer books (she found an easy-to-read one for me since I'm American) and reciting a long prayer to Buddha, which she was very familiar with. I think my eyes had turned into little black manga points as I watched that, but it was really interesting, too