Friday, October 21, 2005

The joy of eating Cheetos, new crimes on the rise in Japan, and some really "radical" kanji for you

One of the benefits to living the expat life is coming to value the things from home you used to take for granted. But if you ever live in a place with no Root Beer, no Peter Pan Peanut Butter, and no Rold Gold pretzels (or whatever happens to be dear to you), you will learn to appreciate them in a hurry. The other day I got a care package from my mother which contained our Thanksgiving stuff (since Japan can be quite pumpkin-pie-and-mashed-potato-challenged when it wants to be), and there was a general work stoppage while the J-List staff stopped to check out the various goodies that Mom had sent along. The gaijiin staff of J-List was especially happy with the Cheetos that were in the box, and we eagerly devoured them. Sometimes it's the little things that mean a lot.
There's a new type of crime in Japan. A few days ago, a small battery-powered wireless camera was discovered attached to the wall above an ATM machine in a UFJ Bank in Tokyo. The device was capable of broadcasting out to a receiver located outside the building, where a man watched with a small television, recording the passwords people used to access their bank accounts. Happily, the culprit -- a 36 year old unemployed man -- was caught by police before he could do any damage. There are other types of updated crimes in Japan, one of the most famous being ore ore sagi ("it's me, it's me!" fraud), where a con-man calls an elderly man or woman, pretending to be their grandson and asking them to send money right away because of some trouble they're in. Then there's the related furikome sagi ("pay up" fraud), in which, say, a female con-artist might call the wife of a doctor and say that she'd been touched inappropriately (chikan sareta, for owners of our "Beware of Perverts" T-shirt) by her husband, and that she was about to go to the police. However, she might reconsider if the wife sends 2 million yen to the following account right away.

Kanji may not be the easiest thing in the world to learn, especially those who don't live in kanji-using countries, but neither is it the invention of the devil designed to confound students of Japanese. In fact, it's actually quite logical and organized. When you need to look a character up in a kanji dictionary, you have several ways to go about it, including looking it up based on the total number of strokes (the number of lines it takes to write that character), or using its pronunciation. The most logical way, however, is to use the radical, which are quadrants on the left, right, top, etc. of kanji, which group them together based on meaning. One common type of radical are kanmuri, which means "crown" (aside: Toyota Camry gets its name from this word, based on a strange fixation the company has for making cars with names that mean crown in various languages). One type is take-kanmuri (tah-KAY KAN-moo-REE) or "bamboo crown," and characters that contain radical this are often things made of bamboo, such as fude (writing brush) or hako (box). Similarly, the character for rain (ame, ah-MAY) appears as a radical in related words, such as snow, lightning, fog, cloud, and electricity. (The popular Wordtank electronic dictionaries that J-List sells have full kanji dictionary functions built into them.)

J-List is looking for a webmaster/blogger for our review/interview website. If you've got experience with the products we sell, have good web skills and would like to write some interesting content, please contact us through the "contact J-List" link on the site.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

On the creativity of children, social change in Japan, and what's up with Steven Seagal

Children are very creative, and it seems there's nothing that a child is incapable of imagining, especially when it comes to inventing new words. When I was learning Japanese in college, I discovered that you don't have to be a child to have a child's creativity with language. As I studied Japanese, I experimented with the language every day, completely mangling the grammar as I got each vocabulary word and useful phrase down, sometimes inventing something new and interesting in the process thanks to the universal phenomenon of "not knowing what can't be done." The process is not unlike the way a child experiments with its first language, often creating ingenious Dr. Seussian words for things. Just as most of us have a special place in our hearts for the things we loved when we were small, be they television shows or comic books or 8-bit video games, I still feel natsukashii (nostalgic) about the anime I was watching in my college years, which represent my childhood as far as learning Japanese is concerned. So if you ever want to enjoy a second childhood, consider learning a second language!

It's said that Japan is between ten and 25 years behind the United States and Europe socially, and viewed from a certain point of view, the statement seems to be eerily true. Various social institutions that you or I might take for granted have taken a while to appear in Japan, such as laws against "seku-hara" (harassment in the workplace) or laws protecting the privacy of individuals. Over the past few years, Japan has been renaming some job titles that had a sexist slant due to the kanji they were written with. For example, the old word for a preschool teacher, hobo (保母, literally "protecting mother") has been updated to hoikushi (保育士, a professional-sounding word that means care-giver), and the former term for nurse (kangofu, 看護婦, written with characters that meant "nursing wife") is now kangoshi 看護士, which makes no reference to male or female. Some words haven't been updated yet, though. A family with only one parent is often called boshi katei 母子家庭, which literally means "household of mother and child," but this word doesn't serve its purpose very well if the single parent is male. And Japanese who spend several years overseas then return to Japan are called kikoku shijo 帰国子女 or "girl-children who have returned to their home country." The term is used for males as well as females, despite the fact that the "girl" meaning is built into the word via kanji characters.

I was flipping channels while shaving this morning and happened to see Steven Seagal being interviewed in Japanese by Dave Spector, which was funny since they're both Americans. He was talking about his latest projects, including a Japanese detective film and an energy drink with his face on it. Seagal is popular in Japan because he's fluent in Osaka-ben, the dialect of Japanese that more or less corresponds to New York American English, and it seems I can't go a month without one of his action films being shown on Japanese television. For marketing reasons, most of his movies have been renamed into the "silence" series, for example, Under Siege is the Warship of Silence, On Deadly Ground becomes Fortress of Silence, and so on. I guess it makes it easier to sell a boxed set of his movies to Japanese fans.

J-List sells our wacky Japanese T-shirts, with messages like "Support the Emperor, Expel for Foreign Barbarians" (a political slogan from 19th century Japan, just about the most esoteric thing we could think of for a T-shirt). Our shirts are popular for their original wacky designs, but they're also excellent quality T-shirts, hand-screenprinted by our San Diego staff with 16 years of screenprinting. We use top quality 6.1 weight T-shirts, add a white under-layer which prevents the color of the shirt from showing through the design, and cure the shirt at 330 degrees to give it long life (far superior to the quickie heat-transfer printing used by those "other" online shops). Our hoodies are great too, made of 80-20 blends, much softer and luxurious-feeling than the cheap 50-50 blends sold elsewhere. Why not browse our T-shirts and hoodies today?

Monday, October 17, 2005

Community spirit, Japan style, and what to do with old schools you don't need anymore

J-List is based in a small city in central Japan, about 100 km north of Tokyo, and it has a real down-home feel to it. Yesterday the annual Green Festival was held, an all-day event where residents of our city could gather and engage in what's locally known as fure-ai (ふれあい, foo-RAY-aa-II). The word literally means "touching each other," and it calls up images of pleasant interaction with one's neighbors and getting to know each other a little better -- a very nice word (no sexual connotation). At the festival, a dozen groups set up tents with various activities that people could take part in. My daughter is in Girls Scouts, so we sat at their booth helping children make various crafts. Elsewhere, kids hammered away making wooden chairs or tables, learned tea ceremony, practiced outdoor activities with the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, ate local foods like yakisoba (the Japanese version of chow mein noodles), and browsed the flea market area (complete with the requisite misspelled sign proclaiming FREE MARKET). There were performances by several local clubs, too, including Japanese taiko drums, a brass band that played anime theme songs (that was pretty interesting to hear) and my favorite, the local Hawaiian Hula Club. It was a fun day of community-building, a regular Amish barn-raising, Japan-style.

At the festival, I was not surprised to attract a lot of attention, as I was the only gaijin present. Everywhere I went I ran into people who knew me, although in a few cases I couldn't remember who they were or where I'd met them -- but I smiled and used the all-purpose Japanese polite phrase, "Domo!" Kids, especially, flocked to me, curious about this strange foreigner who could speak Japanese, and before long I had a good group of Japanese kids trailing me, making me feel like the Pied Piper, or perhaps Jesus on the Mount. It sounds corny, but I'm always careful to present a positive view of America to Japanese children, answering any questions they have and asking what they know about my country. If I find myself around children when I'm wearing sunglasses, I take them off no matter how bright it may be outside. A big foreigner wearing dark sunglasses like a yakuza is likely to be a little scary for Japanese kids, and I'd hate for anyone to get a bad impression of foreigners because of me.

The festival was held in what used to be a local high school, which had been converted into a general-use community center. As Japan's population contracts, they need fewer schools to support the population of students, and so schools are decommissioned all too frequently. While many schools just sit there as creepy reminders of Japan's all-too-low low birth rate, this school had become quite useful, with the interior made available for community meetings and clubs and housing various municipal employees. They also turn it into a voting center on election days.

We've got a great new category of product for you at J-List: various types of traditional kimonos, which are still worn in a variety of places and situations in Japan. We have silky, stylish kimonos for men, great yukata (cotton kimonos) that can be worn anywhere or used as a bathrobe after a hot bath, and short cotton kimonos called happi (sometimes called "happy coats" for the benefit of foreign visitors) with colorful kanji designs on them. If you order with EMS shipping, you can get these items before October 31st, too (but hurry). See all our new kimono items on the newly renamed Traditional Footwear & Kimono category.

We've updated our "top 5" links which appear on the main J-List or pages, increasing the number of top-selling products that display when you click each category link. These links make it easy to browse the best-selling dating-sims, T-shirts, snacks, DVDs, Domo-kun toys, and other items on the J-List site, over the past 7 days. You can also browse all "top" items with the
new link we've placed at the bottom of the box. We'll also be updating the contents every other day, allowing you to browse different categories every time you stop by.

This is the school-turned-community-center. It's a nice use to put a building to. Remind me to post something on Japan's "neo Chernobyl" building style for schools and other public buildings sometime.

The drummers in the taiko group were very good.

One of the sellers warms yaki-manjuu, basically a bun cooked over coals and painted with delicious miso sauce.

They had some interesting food items for sale, including the first shrink-wrapped hamburgers I've ever seen in my life.

There was plenty of cool used stuff for sale. I bought a Tamagotchi for my daughter, a killer Ultraman toy for myself (natch), and I managed to find some Rose of Versailles figures for ten yen each for my wife. Here someone is selling clothes with wacky English messages on them.