Saturday, September 17, 2005

Japan's latest boom: Akiba-kei, Otaku Culture and "Densha Otoko"

Japan is the land of the "boom" and every year something new seems to come out of left field and become really popular here. One of the keywords for 2005 so far has been Akiba-kei, which literally means "related to Akihabara" and refers to Tokyo's mecca for electronics and, increasingly, for general otaku culture. "Otaku" are people who love anime and manga, can appreciate beauty in a bishoujo game character (the dating-sims that J-List sells), and may know something about the subtleties of maid uniforms. As Akihabara has lost its importance as the place to buy electronics in Tokyo, it's been morphing into a haven for fans of doujinshi (Japan's famous amateur comics), high-end anime shops and maid cafes, where beautiful girls in Gothic maid costumes will bring you coffee. It seems everywhere you turn these days, people in Japan are talking about good, wholesome geek culture.

Part of the reason for this new interest in otaku-dom is the hit drama Densha Otoko, or Train Man, the story of an introverted man who loves anime and video games. When he saves a beautiful woman from a drunkard on a train, she shows her thanks by giving him an expensive Hermes tea set. He's smitten by her beauty, but too shy to do anything about it, so he goes online and asks for help on a popular Internet BBS. Before long, their budding love is being followed by a million otaku throughout Japan who take part in the discussions about their relationship. The drama, which is a few episodes from its end, is based on a true story -- a real member of the popular Japanese BBS 2ch did find love by getting help from thousands of otaku. The show is incredibly popular, commanding upwards of 20% of viewers here.

Otaku culture has also made its mark on a popular Japanese television show, TV Champion, which normally challenges teams of artists to create amazing works out of trash, or design sprawling creations using legos, or bake cakes in the shape of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. This week's episode was Akiba-kei all the way, though, with geeky contestants doing things like listening to clips from anime and identifying who the voice actor/actress was, answering obscure trivia about anime, and dressing normal Tokyo girls up like their favorite anime characters. In the end, the contestant with the most votes was awarded the title "King of Otaku."

We've got a new announcement for fans of our English-translated PC dating-sim games: many titles are now available via Internet download! Now you have a choice when you purchase selected G-Collections games, ordering them on CD-ROM as you've always done, or downloading the new Download Editions. As always, CD-ROM versions will be standard packaged games that you can install in your PC normally. The Download Editions make use of Virtual Mate 2.0, which is an updated activation system that requires an Internet connection when you load the game. G-Collections has worked hard to improve V-Mate with the new version -- you get a license to install on up to five computers, with the ability to manually "de-register" a machine, for when you upgrade to a new computer. Best of all, V-Mate is optional, since you can opt to buy the full CD-ROM version instead which has no internet connection requirement. There are currently fourteen games available for download.

The availability of the new download versions means that several of the popular games we've been out of stock of for a while are available again, including The Sagara Family, Come See Me Tonight, and Do You Like Bunnies? 2. All are on the site and available for immediate purchase as download versions (and the Virtual Mate-free CD-ROMs will be posted as soon as they're back from the duplicators).

Time for lunch. There's nothing really good to eat in Akiba -- you'd think they'd have at least a Starbucks with all the google-eyed foreigners who go there. I went for beef bowl. Here it is before I poured raw egg all over it...

Back on my way to the embassy. This is some Japan Foundation official logo, which seemed incredibly cute to me.

Advertisement for promoting awareness of Heat Island Syndrome, a big problem in over-urbanized Tokyo in which all the asphalt and all the air conditioners cause a much higher temperature than would have occurred normally. Does anyone else think she looks like Aoi Sora? Maybe I've been doing this too long...

Finally, another ad I caught going for my train, featuring Chiaki Kuriyama. Man I love her, and am happy that she's been rewarded for her fame overseas with promotion deals. The girl next to her is Ryoko Shinohara, a former singer in the Komuro Family who sang the opening theme song to the Street Fighter II movie, which really ruled (I once rode my bicycle to no less than 11 shops to track that single down).

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Fall season in Japan, touching Japanese TV commercials, and a cosmic rule about pickles

Hello again from Japan. We're very sorry with the problems with the site after the last update -- we had reset the products on the server, but many of them had images that were missing throughout the site, causing them to fail to appear. Also, T-shirt sizes weren't being displayed, which caused some confusion. We're happy to report that everything's working again now.

Fall is coming to Japan, my favorite time of the year hands-down. Before long, the leaves will start to change to beautiful shades of red, yellow and brown in a beautiful display of colors second only to the cherry blossoms in April. The most popular tree in the autumn is the momiji-no-ki (紅葉の木), or Japanese maple, with small, delicate leaves that are really beautiful. The changing of the leaves is called koyo (紅葉), and it's especially nice to head up to the mountains to enjoy the colors up close -- we often have barbeques up there with friends in October. The coming of Autumn is a chance for advertisers to sell products themed for the season, such as Kirin's season-limited Aki-Aji ("Taste of Autumn") beer, which is best enjoyed during an evening of tsukimi or moon-viewing. Autumn is also the season for school sports festivals, held from one end of Japan to the other. Kids run relays, perform synchronized dances, and generally celebrate sports while their parents look on with pride. Makers of home electronics don't miss the opportunity to sell sell video cameras to mothers and fathers who want to record these events for posterity. This year's Panasonic TV commercial is especially nice, capturing a bittersweet moment. See it here (Flash required).

While living in Japan is fun, there are an awful lot of things you have to learn to do without. The local version of peanut butter here is nothing like what's sold in the U.S., so when I run out of Skippy or Peter Pan at home, I have to learn to eat something else on my bread. Tortillas are very hard to find in Japan, and the closest thing to a burrito here are the Twisters at Kentucky Fried Chicken, which are actually not that bad as a substitute if you bring your own hot sauce. Other staples like Campbell's soup, macaroni and cheese and root beer are absent from an expat's life in Japan. For some cosmic reason, living in another country seems to make people yearn for the traditional pickles of their homeland. Although the Japanese have a long tradition of pickling vegetables (including making kim-chee, delicious Korean spicy pickles), they're not just a replacement for good, crunchy Vlassics that I am used to from home. Likewise, J-List's Daisuke (the guy who keeps us stocked with Domo-kun toys) tells me that when he was living in Chicago he yearned for various pickled Japanese foods, including ume-boshi, Japan's tart pickled plums. We've got some ume related products on the site for you if you want to try some.

J-List carries thousands of amazing and rare products from Japan, including a lot of cool traditional Japanese items that are hard to find outside of Japan. We've added a huge stock of our popular Japanese sandals, including "tatami" sandals (called zori in Japan) of various sizes, including our largest sandals for the guys. Come browse our great Japanese traditional footwear!

My trip to Tokyo. I had to go to Tokyo to get something stamped in my passport. It was raining, since a typhoono (not named Katrina) was coming to the Kanto area for a visit. This is Akihabara, Japan's electronics mecca.

As a Mac user, I'm mildly insulted that Laoxx's old Mac-kan (Mac only store) has given way to a NTT DoCoMo store selling cell phones (and this is a 7 storey building selling nothing but phone stuff, wow.) Now the only place to buy Macs and get a good selection is Sofmap's store, located farther from the station (and thus, having lower status).

However, they had a big poster of the beautiful Chiaki Kuriyama, aka GoGo Yubari, so it was okay.

I'm sure an Apple store is coming to Akiba soon, but in the meantime, there's a Bose store that seems to be cut from the same cloth.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Japanese postal politics, all about Japanese political parties, and stupid jokes in Japanese

Hello again from J-List, your friend in Japan!

Well, the Japanese election is behind us, and it was a landslide for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Prime Minister Koizumi, who successfully chased the anti-reform Diet members from his party and got a mandate for change from the voters. It was a very interesting election in that it was a lot more "American" than those of the past -- the heads of each Japanese party campaigned directly to the people, presenting their ideas on the main issue at hand, the privatization of the Japanese post office along the lines of Japan's privatizing of the old national railroad system during the 1980s (which became the current six Japan Railroad companies). Japan is a parliamentary democracy based on the government of the U.K., with a Prime Minister elected by the party that holds the most seats in the Diet. Since the leaders are not chosen directly by the people, as in countries with presidential elections, it creates a different dynamic between the voters and the head honcho. This time around, there was the sense that people were voting for the leader directly, rather than just casting votes for their local representative in the Diet.

Now that the LDP has gotten the go-ahead, they'll be putting their plan to reform Japan's massive postal apparatus into action. The problem with Japan Post isn't how they deliver the mail, of course -- they're extremely polite and hardworking, and J-List wouldn't be able to function without the efforts of several post offices in our area. (J-List sends so many packages, we once received a special thank-you plaque presented by the director of the postal service.) The biggest problems with the post office are the convenient but unnecessary Kampo life insurance and postal savings accounts, which operate under different rules than private insurance companies and banks in Japan and which effectively keep the private sector on an inferior level compared to these government-backed enterprises. Japan could also afford to shed a few thousand of the 24,000 post offices that dot the country -- it'd ridiculous how many I pass when driving around my town. Maybe they can combine some of them and put some real parking lots in?

Japanese humor can be quite interesting, and watching anime can teach you some words and phrases that are fun to know. At the age of 37, I'm passed the oniisan phase and am well on my way to being a true ojisan (two words which mean older brother and uncle, respectively, but in more general context refer to young-ish men in their 20s and men starting their silver years). For whatever reason, middle-aged men in Japan make the stupidest puns, which are called dajare (dah-JAH-rey), but when I make puns my kids use the word dadajare, combining "dada" (Daddy) with dajare, which is rather deep as that's a dajare right there. Here are some stupid Japanese phrases you can use if you know any Japanese people. One comes from a commercial for Listerine which combined the English words "bye bye" with the word for bacteria (baikin) to make bye bye-kin (bai bai-KEEN) which caught on and was said by everyone for a while. Another involves a phrase you might have heard in anime, sonna bakana, which means "what a stupid..." and is said to express shock, but if you change it to sonna banana ("what a banana!") it's mildly amusing. (The word "banana" is pronounced in Japanese with the stress on the first syllable, e.g. BAH-na-na.)

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Humility in Japan, the many faces of apologies, and Japanese calendars

Hello again from J-List. We're a day late with the update because of some database related problems, but the update is finally ready. And what an update it is...

One of the more interesting aspects of Japanese is their strong tendency to be humble, being polite by putting one's self down in order to raise others up. If you've ever complimented a Japanese person on their English only to have them deny your compliment strongly, you've experienced what Japanese call kenson (ken-SON, which means humility). You can see this at work in Japan's group culture -- each member of a group of people trying to decide which restaurant they all want to eat at will gently probe and test the other members before putting forth a suggestion. Successful learners of a language inevitably go beyond mere grammar and vocabulary, actually internalizing the values of the group you're interacting with. When I'm in Japan I find my "Japanese" personality is much more low-key and humble than my outgoing American self.

Another side of Japan's famous humility can be seen in the times and places where apologies are used, often in situations that English speakers would have trouble comprehending. When I first got to Japan, some friends took me to a sento, a public bath with a sauna. It was late, near closing time, and we were a little slow getting out of the bath, which caused inconvenience for the staff who were trying to clean up so they could go home. I thanked the lady at the counter as I left, using the Japanese phrase "arigatou gozaimashita." But my Japanese friends corrected me, saying I should apologize instead, using the word "sumimasen deshita." I was confused -- why apologize when I'm trying to thank the lady for letting us stay past closing time? "Thank you sounds cheap," I was told. "In this case it's better to use words of apology." As I was shaving this morning I watched a news report about executives of the Fuji Television Network issuing a formal apology over an incident involving camera crews who used eyewitness reports that had been faked in order to make them sound more dramatic (which is called yarase, ya-RAH-say, a common problem with television here). Since the news station I was watching was on the Fuji network, the newscaster bowed his head low to the camera and apologized again, right in the middle of reading the news.

Today's a big day at J-List, because we've posted our popular Japanese calendars! Every year in the fall hundreds of large-format glossy calendars are released in the Japanese market, and once again J-List is making them available to fans all over the world. If you've never seen these Japanese calendars, they're really amazing -- huge poster-sized sheets of thick stock paper, with beautiful printing and photography and art that will really make your year special. This year's calendars are extra nice, with many items that we think will be very popular, including anime, JPOP, sexy idol, and more -- there's even a Domo-kun calendar this year! Ayumi Hamasaki finally broke her 4-year record of claiming the coveted "CL1" spot, losing out to the super-cute Aya Ueto, the cheerful idol and actress.

The calendars we've got for you are preorder, so it's best if you can order with credit card, so we can hold the order until it's ready to be shipped to to you (but this is not a requirement). Rolled calendars require a mailing tube, which is $2 and one tube can hold two calendars. As in previous years, if you buy 4 or more calendars you'll get 15% off, and get your mailing tubes for free! As usual, we don't have the calendars in stock yet, so we had to scan the small sample image so you can see what the calendar covers are like. To help you make a decision about which calendars you want, we've posted sample images from last year's calendars for most items. Enjoy browsing our great Japanese calendars, and remember, they make great Christmas gifts for that otaku on your list!