Friday, October 14, 2005

My son goes to a "juku," funny English the Japanese create, and various Halloween related stuff

My son has joined the millions of Japanese kids who attend a juku, the famous cram schools where students go in the evenings to take extra lessons. Actually, "cram school" isn't a very good term, since it implies students do nothing but cram for tests, when in fact my son just takes extra lessons in math, social studies, and his worst subject, kokugo (Japanese language). There are tens of thousands of these after-hours-and-weekend schools throughout Japan, with different reasons for the existence of each. Some just help students keep up with their normal classwork, effectively giving them a place to do their homework with a teacher's supervision, while others lay the groundwork for future academic achievement, eventually helping the student get into a high-ranking high school or university. My son mainly wanted to go to juku because his friends were going, but he also enjoys studying. One of the most famous juku systems in Japan is Kumon, which has quite a good track record for helping students raise their academic scores. Kumon has even successfully brought their study method outside Japan, with Kumon Learning Centers (there's even one near my house in San Diego).

Mastering Japanese involves learning hiragaka, katakana, and kanji, but you also have to re-learn some English, since the Japanese sometimes change the language beyond recognition. If you ask your boss for a raise, but he says no, it's "NG," which stands for "no good." A "blooper" on TV is also called an NG. The letter "W" stands for "double" to the Japanese, and there's a TV commercial for a video camera starring Maria Sharapova in which she says "W-OK" ("double okay"), referring to the fact that you can take still pictures and video at the same time. If you want to check your weight, ask for a "health meter" -- the English word "scale" is used in Japanese, but only meaning something's size in relation to something else, not as a way to check your weight. We're putting the finishing touches on an Obi Wan Kenobi costume for my son, and my wife emailed my mother in America asking how to fasten the "magic tape" (she meant velcro). If you want to tell someone to not worry about something, you can say "Donmai, donmai!" which comes from "Don't mind." Similarly, when someone is backing their car up, you can tell them it's okay to come back further by saying "Orai!" which comes from "Alright." Sometimes Americans are confused by strange English that's really British in origin -- for example, the Japanese call the hood of a car a "bonnet" just like the Brits.

Halloween is not too far away, and J-List would like you to think of us when looking for that perfect or wacky costume. In addition to adding some great new costume-themed products to the site today (see below), we've restocked popular items, such as the Hello Kitty kigurumi (full head) mask, the Jizou Buddha mask, the Shinto Shrine Maiden (aka Kikyo from Inuyasha) costume, our tattoo shirt that makes you look like a yakuza, our wacky "unchi" hat and more! Of course we recommend that you order them via EMS to make sure the items arrive in time. We also have excellent stock of Japanese candy if you want to splurge on something special for the neighborhood this year.

J-List works hard to bring you great original T-shirts with wacky designs on them. One of our favorite recent designs is our "Japanese words" shirt that presents fifteen educational Japanese words of cultural value. To compliment this shirt, we've made a new limited edition design which teaches you every "naughty" Japanese word you've ever wanted to know. The shirt is designed so that people who have no idea what the words mean won't be offended, but those who do will laugh their butts off.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Problems in Japan's business world, boneheaded moves by Seven-Eleven Japan, and all about futons

There's a fight brewing in Japan's business world, as investment fund Murakami Asset Management, the largest shareholder of the popular Hanshin Tigers baseball team, tries to take the team public. His goal is to allow Tigers fans to show their support by becoming shareholders, and of course earn his fund a nice return in the process. He's encountering significant resistance from the directors of the team, who don't want to see their crown jewel mishandled, and purist fans in Osaka are also angry about the cold world of business intruding on their love of baseball. The situation is similar to that of T-shirt-wearing president of Livedoor, Takafumi Horie, who had difficulties executing a leveraged buyout of Fuji TV, something that isn't done very often in Japan. The fact that there can be a controversy about something like this at all brings into question concept of "ownership" of a stock in Japan. The Hanshin Tigers won the Japan World Series this year and has been incredibly popular with Japanese fans.

In other business news, a staple of the Japanese retail industry is falling on hard times. Ito Yokado Group, the company that operates the national chain of department stores Ito Yokado as well as owning all Seven-Eleven and Denny's in Japan, has been having a bad couple of years. Sales at the company's flagship department stores have been falling, and 80% of the profit the $6 billion group earns comes from the 10,000 Seven-Eleven stores in Japan. There is nothing more finicky and hard to satisfy as a Japanese consumer, who demand both exceptional quality and low prices in everything they buy, and Ito Yokado is having a tough time of finding the right mix of fashion and value to delivery to its customers. It may be just me, but I think part of their problem might have to do with the boneheaded idea of changing the company name to "Seven & I Holdings" and replacing the famous dove logo on their department stores with the Seven-Eleven image. "Holdings" sounds like so much corporate felgercarb, and the idea of buying clothes from a building with a Seven-Eleven logo on the outside is just bizarre. Jack in the Box restaurants used to be operated by Ralston Purina, but if they put the famous dog food maker's logo on their restaurants, sales would fall pretty fast, I think.

Do you sleep in a bed or on a futon? Both are popular in Japan, although the trend is definitely towards Western beds among young people. Futons are sleeping mats large enough to sleep one person comfortably. They fold up into three sections for easy storage, and are useful to keep around when guests drop by unexpectedly -- just pull a spare futon out of the closet. Futons must be hung out to dry every few days or they'll accumulate moisture inside, which is unhealthy, and the Japanese believe the sun shining on your futon kills germs (they're certainly nice to sleep in after they've been hung out to dry). The Western "futon" is usually comprised of a large stuffed pad and a wooden frame, but like California Rolls, this is a completely made-in-the-the-West concept.

We've got another big volley of 2006 calendars in stock, with 40 or more anime, swimsuit idol, traditional and cultural, and men's calendars in stock and ready for your immediate order. Browse our stock right now!

Monday, October 10, 2005

December tests in Japan, my favorite place in my prefecture, and a cool Japanese artist

The month of December means many things: Christmas, spending time with loved ones, and what the Japanese call "shiwasu," that extra-busy two weeks at the end of the year when no one has enough time to do the things they need to do. December is also the month tens of thousands of foreigners will go to Tokyo or one of several other large cities in and outside of Japan to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (in Japanese, Nihongo Noryoku Shiken, 日本語能力試験). There are four levels to the JLPT, starting with level 4 (hiragana, katakana and around 100 kanji) all the way to level 1 (2000 "general use" kanji, along with listening, reading and grammar), and level 1 is what you need to get if you want to go to a Japanese university. I got level 1 a couple years after arriving in Japan, and it was nice to achieve that particular goal. I used to think of getting level 1 of JLPT was the ultimate goal a learner of Japanese could have, but I've had to revise this estimation as I encountered other challenges in the course of living in Japan. Currently, the most difficult thing I've had to do in Japanese is give the first (and longest) speech at the weddings of J-List employees, but one day I happened to witness what must truly be the ultimate test of a gaijin's Japanese ability, when I saw a foreign reporter asking a question of Emperor Akihito in Japanese at a press conference. Sadly, the poor gaijin didn't phrase his question well enough, and the Emperor had to ask him to repeat it in front of everyone. I could really feel that poor reporter's pain! (For anyone wanting to study for the JLPT, see our site as we have many resouces for you.)

Whenever I have friends visit from overseas, I take them to one of my favorite places, the Gunma Prefectural Museum of History, which takes visitors through the 50,000-or-so-year history of our little corner of Japan. Crane-shaped Gunma is located smack in the center of the main Japanese island of Honshu, and while the lion's share of the cultural points of interest can be found in the Kyoto/Nara/Osaka area, our prefecture can hold its own when it comes to stuff that's a little more old school. Back in the Jomon Period, when the inhabitants of Japan were using flint knives and making the first pottery, Gunma's culture was very strong, and a nearby town called Iwajuku contains the oldest human artifacts found yet in Japan. Gunma was also very big on burial mounds back during the centuries before Chinese characters were imported from Korea, and often as not, when you see a small hill in our prefecture it's really an 1800 year old burial mound.

I've always been fascinated by the art of Mitsuo Aida (1924-1991), who created beautiful poetry using Japanese calligraphy. He crafted his amazing works using Chinese writing brushes, making creations which are pleasing to the eye and which express Zen-inspired short observations and messages about life, the universe and everything. We've got the Mitsuo Aida Museum's 2006 calendar on the site right now and hope you'll consider this beautiful example of his unique art!

Sunday, October 09, 2005

What ordering a "tako" in Japan will get you, fun ways to learn Japanese, and our new kanji T-shirts

There are many interesting foods in Japan. One of our favorite treats is takoyaki, especially popular in the Osaka region. In stark contrast to the English word taco, tako is is Japanese for octopus; to differentiate the crustacean from the Mexican food, the Japanese always use the plural word "tacos" (takosu) for referring to the latter, even if they're talking about just one taco. Takoyaki are basically fried balls of batter that contain a piece of cooked octopus meat inside, painted with a delicious sauce. If you ever find yourself in Osaka, be sure to go to Otakoya, a takoyaki shop near the famous Glico neon sign in the Dotonbori area. Be warned though: you may have to stand in line for a couple of hours to be served -- that's how popular takoyaki is. Once in rural Japan we happened across a takoyaki vendor who decided to call his shop Tako Bell. My wife and I were completely floored with laughter at this unexpected sight. (Incidentally, we have some takoyaki making supplies on the site today.)

There are many ways to learn a foreign language: the Grammar-Translation method, the Communicative Approach, the Natural Method, Total Physical Response, and so on. Another time-honored way to learn a language is to "get attention" method, which I've labeled the Social Feedback Method to give it a cool-sounding name. Using this method, you learn enough phrases and words to passably communicate with the target group in such a way that you always get positive feedback, be it getting laughs from Japanese at a party, impressing cute Japanese girls, what have you. I had a friend who had taught English as a Second Language all around Asia, and he got incredible mileage from the phrase Shumi wa nan desu ka? which means "What is your hobby?" Another phrase you might try out is naruhodo, which means "I see" or "that's right" and implies having been convinced that the opinion of the person you're listening to has just made an impression on you. Another staple is honto (HONE-toh), which means "really" and can be used as a question (Honto?) or as an affirmation (Honto!). Another phrase that can be fun to know is "hen na gaijin" (lit. "strange foreigner"), but more on that below...

In Japan, instead of signing documents, you usually stamp them with a red "name stamp," called a hanko, that features your name in kanji, or in the case of a corporation, the company's name in kanji. While these name stamps can seem pretty odd to foreigners -- after all, what's to stop someone from stealing your stamp and taking all your money out of the bank? -- all in all the name stamp system seems to work pretty well. We've made two cool Japanese T-shirts that feature the unique name stamp design. The first shirt is for everyone who secretly wishes they had been born in Japan: Nihonjin ni naritai, "I Wish I Were Japanese." The second T-shirt features a phrase that all foreigners who come to Japan manage to learn within 24 hours, Hen na gaijin, "I'm a strange foreigner." Both shirts are in stock in standard sizes and ready for your order!