Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Japan's addiction to construction, and why this sometimes is a Good Thing

Japan is a highly developed nation, almost a case study in what happens when industrialization is taken too far. Asphalt and concrete about in Japan, and I can't remember when I last saw a non-paved road here. Even up in the mountains you can see plenty of concrete, as engineers cover mountainsides with cement to keep falling rocks at bay. Basically, Japan's penchant for durable materials is a side effect of its reliance on -- you could say addiction to -- construction is the backbone of its economy. A sizeable part of the American economy is made up of defense contractors who create the tools the military needs to do its job. In place of these companies, Japan has gargantuan construction interests who lobby for constant building of everything from roads to bridges to subsidized local projects like a space museum celebrating Japanese astronaut Chiaki Mukai, located in her hometown near us. Japan's government is quite good at building things that no one needs, such as the $7 billion Aqua-line, a massive bridge-and-tunnel that cuts across Tokyo Bay to Chiba (Night City if you're a William Gibson fan), or the 13.7 km Great Seto Bridge that connects Japan's main island of Honshu with fourth-largest island of Shikoku, both of which cost so much in tolls that most drivers don't bother.

Even though I dislike wasteful construction projects, I will admit that Japan is safer from natural disasters than it would otherwise be without the Japanese tendency to overbuild. From Earthquakes to tsunamis to typhoons, there are plenty of hazards in Japan, but by and large plans are in place to deal with them. Most every river in Japan has a high, sloped levee made of reinforced concrete to guard against flooding, and large concrete breakwaters surround much of Japan's coastline, lessening the impact of a big wave. Every community in Japan has a designated "evacuation area," a place where you're supposed to go in the event of a natural disaster. And in the event that homes are destroyed, people here know that temporary housing units that can be erected quickly will be provided by the government, as happened after the earthquakes in Kobe and Niigata. Perhaps in the future America can take some pointers from Japan in this area (and a few others I could point out).

There is one corner of Japan that isn't overdeveloped: the northernmost island of Hokkaido. A very cold place in the winter, Hokkaido is the "bread basket" of Japan, and companies use the image of the island to sell everything from milk to butter to corn. Because the island was for the most part settled after Japan began to modernize in the 1870s, cities in Hokkaido often feel quite different from the rest of the country, from the rolling hills and beautiful Catholic Church of Hakodate in the south to the quaint canals of the port city of Otaru. Sapporo is a bustling modern city that was designed by American urban planners, and it's also the home of the Sapporo Brewing Company, Japan's oldest. Every August thousands of Japanese from the Tokyo area go to Hokkaido to escape the heat. It large natural areas and open roads make it popular with motorcycle aficionados from all over Japan, too.

J-List carries the hard-to-find UMD movies for PSP (yes, the naughty kind), a great new way to enjoy Sony's new handheld. While several of the UMD titles have been released as region free, most of the recent releases have been zoned for region 2. This is bad news for owners of PSPs bought in the U.S., but if you're in Europe, where the PSP has just been officially released, it's good news, since both Europe and Japan are region 2!

Pictures walking around Baltimore. It really was a beautiful city, and I liked it a lot. They have a thing for crabs there, as you can see by this beautifully decorated crab near a restaurant that sells crab soup.

At fan-dubbers night, watching the excellent Evangelion ReDeath by Studio Sokodei, a parody redub that I'd seen before, but enjoyed anyway (Oh baby...). Since I was involved with Seishun Shitemasu -- a bunch of guys with a VCR, I felt rather proud.

Then it was time to get ready to return to Japan. But wait, I had an empty suitcase -- what was I going to do? Fill it was cool food from the U.S., that's what. You don't think of things like Shreaded Wheat, tortillas, pretzels and salsa as being that big a deal, but try living in a country where they have none of this stuff. And to top it off, it was a Giant on the East Coase, so we got to find lots of things we don't have in California like Utz potato chips.

Hate to say it guys, but it's a trend. Once again, I got on the flight, this time being one of the first on the plane. No magazines, not even Black Golf-Playing Entrepreneur. Only the Good Book. I have nothing against the Book, but I can't help thinking it's yet another symbol of some unhealthy changes that have happened to my beloved America since its citizens decided it would be a good idea to give one party control of both the Presidency and both houses of Congress. Kind of like women not being able to get prescriptions for birth control pills because pharmacists don't think they should be using birth control or having sex. It's somewhat alarming. This was United by the way, again.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Lexus is coming to Japan, the concept of Idioms in Japanese, and more about OH! Mikey

A new car company is coming to Japan, but Japanese consumers are already quite familiar with their products. After years of speculation, Toyota is finally bringing their Lexus brand of luxury automobiles to the domestic market, opening a nationwide network of dealerships here in an attempt at stealing some of the thunder from BMW and Mercedes-Benz. The funny thing is, the cars sold under the Lexus moniker have always been available in Japan, with names like Windom (ES330, advertised on television with the slogan "Are you Windom?"), Soarer (SC430, "Soarer for mind cruising") and Harrier (RX300, "Stylish, but formal"). A lot of people are wondering if Toyota can build a successful brand identity for Lexus here, when the newly introduced vehicles will mainly be spruced up versions of already available cars, but with fatter price tags. Unlike in much of the world, where the name Toyota originally meant small, fuel efficient cars, Japanese have never had a problem buying a large range of vehicles under the name Toyota.

We never think about idioms in our own language, but to non-native speakers such as the Japanese, learning the meanings of phrases like to leave no stone unturned or to stick your neck out for someone is a challenge. There are idioms in Japanese, too, including many that make use of parts of the body in different ways. The phrase koshi ga hikui (lit. "one's lower back is low, near to the ground") means a person who is very humble and always apologizing (a good thing in the context of Japan), but shiri ga aoi ("one's rear end is blue") means they're too young or lack experience, since babies born in Asia have a blue spot on their rear ends until the age of two or so. If someone can't keep a secret, they are kuchi ga karui ("their mouth is too light"), but if they are kuchi ga umai ("their mouth is skilled") then they're good at making jokes or getting others to agree with them. The eyes in Japanese are called me (pronounced "meh"), and some idioms that make use of eyes include me ga takai (lit. "your eyes are high"), meaning someone who can recognize quality when they see it, and me ga ten ni natta ("my eyes became little black dots"), meaning, I was so surprised, my face looked like a character out of a manga.

J-List carries dozens of English-translated dating-sim games from Japan, which let you interact with pretty girls and try to win their hearts. Now for fans of yaoi, we've got a great announcement: the first two English-translated "BL" games, which let fans of yaoi in on the fun, too. There are two titles we're posting for preorder now, the first being Enzai - Falsely Accused, a story of betrayal set in Napoleonic Europe in which you play the part of Guys, a youth sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit. Next is Perfect Obedience - Zettai Fukuju Meirei, a game combining a complex game system and cool-looking military uniforms (can't go wrong, there).

For all fans of the wacky OH! Mikey, the popular Japanese drama about an American family living in Japan that uses mannequins as actors, we've got a treat: OH! Mikey Hard Core, a brand new DVD that's loaded with great stories, and features both subtitles on the Japanese episodes and some English-dubbed episodes, too! It's the best Mikey ever! (region 2)

Okay, the last of the Otakon pics, then I'll move on to something else. This lady was lovely so I snapped her picture.

We had a belly laugh over this -- Lava Berry Explosion Pop Tarts. Here, Anakin, have some lava, it's good. Watch out, it's hot.

What would a convention be without a giant Domo-kun?

Back in Japan, in the place where all gaijin go to die, Akihabara. Here a gothic lolita girl hands out tissues or something (I couldn't pay attention to what she was hawking since she was so cute).

My wife and I are on a major 24 kick, as in, watching 6 hours or so a night because the show is so addictive. I've even started to drink Calorie Mate Jelly.