Friday, September 02, 2005

About Japanese hot springs, shoes and the Japanese concept of cleanliness

Hello again from Japan. First, sorry for some confusion over the iTunes Music Cards we posted last time -- due to an error they weren't appearing on the site, so some customers were unable to find them. They're on both sites now, though. We've been very happy with the response from the prepaid cards, which are the only way for customers outside of Japan to buy through the iTunes Music Store Japan. The cards are proving so popular, we've already had to restock our supply of the cards!

All of Japan is watching the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in horror. Located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan is no stranger to disasters -- my mother came to visit us from the U.S. once, and she managed to experience typhoons, earthquakes and a nearby volcanic eruption during the short time she was here. However, we've never seen anything on the scale of the current tragedy, ever. All of us pray for the safety of everyone affected by these terrible, terrible events.

I'm a big fan of onsen (OWN-sen), or Japanese hot springs, and whenever we're trying to decide where to take the kids on the weekend, I'm always ready to suggest going for a hot bath up in the mountains. I also like onsen hotels, the large resort hotels that pamper you with delicious food, a soothing volcanic bath, and maybe some late-night ramen or karaoke before going to sleep in on a traditional futon. These hot springs hotels are located in every corner of Japan, and there seem to be certain universal constants about them. For example, the hotels will always have a dilapidated game center filled with arcade games manufactured before 1993, and you can find a ping pong table and vending machines selling Haagen Daaz ice cream, too. The staff will never fail to try to speak to you in halting English even though you're speaking fluent Japanese at them. Tokimeki Check in!, one of our most popular PC love-sim games, is based in a traditional hot springs hotel, and many of the elements you see in a real hotel can be found in the game.

When it comes to cleanliness in Japan, there's one rule -- anything having to do with the feet is kitanai, or dirty. Japanese homes (and some offices, such as J-List) have a lowered area at the front door called a genkan, where you leave your shoes before going inside. After you've lived in Japan for a while, the idea of wearing shoes on hardwood floors or on plush carpeting becomes really strange. Because you have to take your shoes off a dozen times a day in Japan, you tend to get very good at choosing shoes that can be put on easily -- high-top basketball shoes or boots are not very popular here. When I was a boy, I used to spend virtually the entire summer barefoot, as I roamed the neighborhood playing, but I realized that my own kids never get to experience this joy, since the idea of going outside hadashi (barefoot) is not really accepted here.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

How a Japanese computer works, all about Japanese abbreviations, and iTunes Music Cards from J-List

I remember when I first started learning Japanese, I wondered how Japanese text entry could work on a computer. I pictured some horrible keyboard with hundreds of keys, but in reality, Japanese computers use the same QWERTY keyboards as everyone else. Japanese input is accomplished through a front-end processor, basically a program that ships with Japanese Windows and all copies of Mac OS X that handles converting your text into the correct mix of hiragana, katakana and kanji before it's pasted into your document. With Japanese text input selected, you type some text with the keyboard -- for example, aoi sora (青い空) which means "blue sky." Hit the space bar, and the computer will convert the text you've just typed into the kanji/kana combination it thinks you want, although sometimes problems can occur here, as there are often alternate or archaic kanji in the computer's dictionaries (e.g. 蒼い, or names like 葵). When you get used to the system, you can enter Japanese text quite quickly, although there's a downside -- entering Japanese into a computer becomes so easy that it's easy to forget how to write kanji manually. As with operating systems, there are various kanji entry systems on the market, and users will rally around one product or the other -- users of EG Bridge might flame fans of ATOK, with both camps expressing their disgust for Kotoeri. Although the Japanese enter words in romaji these days, i.e. normal alphabetical order, there is an alternate kana layout for keyboards that some still use (which is why there are kana characters printed on the USB keyboards that we sell).

The Japanese love to abbreviate long, hard to pronounce words. Whether its lopping off some kanji to change Tokyo Daigaku (東京大学) (Tokyo University) into the more manageable Todai (東大), or coining new terms by combining kanji into words like Hanshin (阪神) which uses characters from Osaka (大阪) and Kobe (神戸) to refer to the general area of both cities, the Japanese are efficient speakers. They also use many of the common abbreviations found in English, but sometimes they can sound a little odd to English ears. The Japanese find it easier to pronounce some acronyms such as JAL (Japan Air Lines), ANA (All Nippon Airways), LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) and even VIP as if they were normal words (e.g. "jal" "ana" "lax" and "vip") rather than as a series of letters. Believe me, the word VIP sounds very odd when you hear it pronounced as a word rather than spelled out.

We're big fans of Japanese pop music, and love to promote interest in it wherever we can -- for example, in the fall J-List carries hundreds of amazing large-format calendars printed exclusively for the Japanese market. JPOP fans all over the world were excited when Apple launched their iTunes Music Store here, but unfortunately the store requires that buyers have a credit card issued in Japan in order to make purchases. Happily, there's another way for fans to buy Japanese music through the iTMS -- iTunes Music Cards, which are available through J-List now! These prepaid cards are available in increments of 2500, 5000 or 10,000 yen, and all music is fully compatible with your iPod and iTunes for Mac or PC.

"Suddenly, without warning, love takes you by surprise..." J-List sells the unique PC dating-sims from Japan, called ren'ai ("love") or bishoujo ("pretty girl") games here. One of our favorites is a title that was released in Japan in English called Casual Romance Club. In the game you interact with a host of incredibly cute girls, chatting on your cell phone and going on dates before you decide if you want to go further. In addition to being a great game, it comes with a fabulous full color artbook, the most amazing game manual you'll ever see. We're happy to announce we've lowered the price of this exceptional title to just $49.95. Enjoy this classic dating-sim at its new lower price.

Monday, August 29, 2005

A small Okinawa town in Bolivia, Tomo gets a new car, and thoughts on luck in Japan

Hello from Japan. We've been having some off-and-on problems with the J-List server, which we've gotten under control again, we think. As before, if you ever experience slowness with the site, please try again shortly and it should work for you. We'll get this permanently fixed soon!

Okinawa is the southernmost prefecture in Japan, a volcanic atoll of small islands that fell under Japanese control in 1609 and became a modern prefecture in 1879. Although Okinawa is part of Japan today, it has a unique language and culture that's very different from the rest of the country. Surprisingly, Okinawa is also the name of a town in Bolivia, which was founded by 278 Okinawans who migrated there in the aftermath of World War II. The Okinawan islands were devastated during the war, and without prospects for work, many locals were forced to leave their homes forever and start new lives in South America. The original immigrants who founded the colony in Bolivia had to cut their way through dense jungle, and many died from local diseases, but they eventually prospered. Tens of thousands of Japanese made their way to countries like Bolivia, Peru and Brazil at different times during the 20th century, and there are sizable minority populations of nikkei (Japanese-descended) people throughout South and Central America. Japanese immigration law grants special visa status to people with Japanese ancestry who want to come work in Japan.

Tomo is a happy man today -- he'll finally get the Mazda RX-8 he ordered a month ago. The way new cars are sold in Japan is quite different from the U.S.: instead of going through third party dealers, most every new car is sold through a showroom operated by each auto manufacturer, such as Toyota's Netz and Nissan's Blue Stage showrooms, located in each city. If you've ever bought a Saturn, all of this might sound familiar to you, since GM based the brand directly on this Japanese model. In Japan, rather than choose a car from the dealer's stock, you order your car new, and they make it in the factory and deliver it to you in a month or so. This insures that you get exactly the car you want, and you also get to enjoy the anticipation of waiting for your car to come, which really is fun. Like most Japanese, Tomo went out of his way to ensure that he received his car on a lucky day. The old lunar calendar used by Japan featured weeks with six days, and the Japanese believe that some days are inherently lucky or unlucky. The six days are Taian (the luckiest day, most weddings and construction groundbreaking ceremonies are held on this day), Butsumetsu ("Day of Buddha's Death," very unlucky), Senpu (the afternoon is lucky), Tomobiki (never have a funeral on this day, or it will cause bad luck for everyone who attends), Sensho (a good day to do something on the spur of the moment), and Shakko (an all-around unlucky day, except for an hour around lunchtime).

Halloween is coming, and J-List always has lots of amazing and unique items to make your cosplay complete this year. In addition to some new costume and masks we're posting today, we've got fresh stock of other great items, like our Hello Kitty kigurumi (full head) mask, our silly Hello Kitty bonnet and more.