Friday, November 11, 2005

Educational game shows, winter coming to Japan, and the eerie, sad story of Minako Honda

I've always been impressed with how serious Japan is about education, and a lot of energy is spent on coming up with ways to teach children more effectively, especially with so few of them popping out these days. Recently, Japan's test scores have been on the decline, indicating that the country is losing out to other Asian nations on the education front. Scores on the TOEFL, which tests academic English, were especially embarrassing, with Japan tied with North Korea at the bottom of the list -- although to be fair, 140,000 Japanese took the test, compared with just 50 students from the Kingdom of Bhutan, which isn't exactly comparing apples to apples. In order to combat the fall in Japanese test scores, there's been a slew of TV programs designed to improve knowledge of subjects like history, math, English and kanji. One show I caught a few days ago placed famous "talents" (actress/singer/idols) in a mock-up of an Indiana Jones-style ore car, hurling down a bluescreened mine shaft. Questions popped up in front of them, and the people in the ore car had to choose the answer by leaning left or right. If they chose correctly they escaped from the mine, but if they chose wrong, their ore car was cast into a pit of flaming CG lava.

Japan is grieving right now after the tragic death of Minako Honda, one of the brightest JPOP stars of the 1980s (right up there with Seiko Matsuda and Akina Nakamori). The 80s were a special time in Japan, when people were filled with an unstoppable optimism about the future of their nation, and the bouncy, fun pop stars of the era left a deep impression on everyone. Japan can be a superstitious place, and a lot of beliefs about how luck is generated revolve around a person's name. There are lucky and unlucky kanji, for example, and even the number of strokes in a person's name are believed to affect their karma. For example, when we named our daughter, my wife made sure to choose kanji that had the same number of strokes as her own name, so her daughter would share in her own good luck (since she was lucky enough to meet me, ha-ha). Last December, Minako officially changed her stage name to Minako Honda. (本田美奈子.), with a period as part of her actual name (similar to the way JPOP group Morning Musume is always written with a small circle at the end). Her goal was to improve her own personal luck and aid her stage career, but this was not to be: tragically, she was diagnosed with acute myelocytic leukemia a month later, which has many superstitious Japanese (including my wife) nodding knowingly about the dangers of trying to influence your own destiny through artificial means.

Winter is threatening to descend on Japan in earnest. Because Japanese homes lack central heating, it can be hard to keep warm, especially for a San Diego gaijin like me. We've turned on our kotatsu, which is a low table with a blanket over it and a heater inside; you put your legs in the kotatsu, which warms your whole body, and for the complete Japanese winter experience, drink hot green tea and eat mikan (mandarin oranges) at the same time. In lieu of central heating, we use stand-alone kerosene heaters called "stoves" (suto-bu), or electric-kerosene heaters that blow heated air (called "fan heaters"), the latter being better for you since they have a built-in 3 hour reminder to open a window and let some fresh air in. Kerosene heaters are economical, but the smell they make when you turn one on or off can give you a headache, and don't get me started on the freezing agony of having to go outside and refill the kerosene tank when it runs out.

Glico has declared that November 11 is Pocky Day, because of the way 11 11 looks like Pocky sticks lined up. In celebration (?) of this day, we've added stock of several flavors of Japan's most favorite snack. Remember, you can always buy Pocky by the shrinkwrapped case and get 15% off.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The challenge of the Japanese toilet, how place names work in Japan, and words for "I"

There are many challenges for foreigners who come to Japan: learning the unwritten social rules (which probably don't apply to you anyway, as a visitor); coping with large, easy to read signs explaining where you're supposed to go (too bad they're in kanji); and learning to enjoy food even though you might not know what it is. Another difficulty that must be overcome is the washiki toire, or Japanese-style toilet, seatless toilets usually found in restaurants, train stations and other public places that you squat over to use. Although Japanese love them because they keep your body away from touching anything dirty, foreigners generally have difficulty with them, since you can't exactly ask for instructions. Well, here's a handy link that that should give you some pointers in case you encounter one of these babies:

Place names in Japan are another interesting subject. The names of the various towns, cities and prefectures are nearly always written in kanji, however all name kanji tend to have many different readings, which can cause confusion. While almost all Japanese can read the standardized kanji everyone learns in school, it can be quite difficult to read kanji place names in another region of Japan. When I take a trip to Northern Japan or the Kyoto area, I know my wife will suddenly become unsure how to pronounce the names of the towns we're passing through, even though she's Japanese. There's another complication: most every part of Japan has both a modern name and an old (Edo period) name, the result of the massive changes during the Meiji Restoration, when the old feudal domains (han) were replaced by a modern system of prefectures (ken) patterned after France. Gunma's old name is Joshu, and neighboring Nagano's old name is Shinshu, and these names pop up from time to time (for example, a ramen shop advertising the "old taste of Joshu").

In Japanese, words can carry a lot of hidden nuances specific to each gender. There are different versions of the first person pronoun for men and women in Japanese, and which word a person chooses to use carries information about how that person views himself. For women, the words for "I" are watakushi (in formal situations), watashi (neutral, slightly feminine) or atashi (very feminine and cute). If a girl is tomboyish she might use a "boys" word for I, boku, and if she's trying to project an extremely cute image, she might even refer to herself in the third person. My daughter, who is eight, calls herself "Rina-chan," although some women in their 20s do this, to the annoyance of many around them. Men will use watakushi (formal), boku (neutral, slightly polite), or if they want to project a "manly" image, ore (OH-reh). Words for "you" include anata (slightly formal, and a little romantic if used by a wife to her husband), kimi (used when talking to someone younger than you), and for men only, the masculine word, omae (oh-MY-ae). A common alternative to using a second-person pronoun is to refer to the person you're speaking to by his name, e.g. Tomo or Fujita-san, if you were talking to Tomo.

We're proud to take the wraps off a new section on the J-List: Japanese textbooks & books about Japan, where we'll be carrying many great new books to help you study Japanese, learn grammar, practice your kanji and kana, and learn about Japanese culture. Look for books on contemporary Japanese home design, learn to play Go or Mah Jong, and much more! For your convenience, these new books are stocked in San Diego, and can be shipped to you in a very short time. Browse our new selection of Japan-related books today!

Monday, November 07, 2005

Successful foreign companies in Japan, and the story of Coca-Cola, vending machines and more

Japan is a unique place, and it's not always easy for foreign companies to succeed here. There are many barriers to making it in Japan, from the confusing multi-leveled tonya distribution system to the often-quirky tastes of Japanese consumers. Still, many famous gaishi-kei" (foreign capital") firms have built successful businesses here, with some companies like Nestle, Proctor & Gamble and Northwest Airlines having been in the marketplace for so long people often don't realize they're foreign (Northwest has been flying commercially to Japan since 1947). The Japanese have a lot of respect for the icons of America and Europe, and happily embrace brands such as BMW, Michelin, Jack Daniels and Harley-Davidson, all of which have found a great deal of success here, and when a famous brand finally claims "mind share" in the Japanese marketplace, it usually enjoys long-term success. On the other hand, Japan is a very competitive place to do business, with many companies actively pursuing every market, and Japanese consumers are especially demanding of high quality. But the benefits of succeeding in Japan can be enormous: some companies, such as Louis Vuitton and AFLAC, have encountered so much success when they expanded into Japan that it basically springboarded the rest of their company to new heights worldwide.

One of the most incredible success stories of any gaishi firm is that of Coca-Cola. Along with Hershey's chocolate and Levi's, Coke was an enigma to Japanese of the occupation era, a mysterious treat enjoyed by the victorious American soldiers. Over the course of a decade, Coca-Cola overcame the Byzantine, almost Soviet-style regulatory hurdles it had to to face in order to flourish in Japan, and now Coke has something like 90% of the cola market to itself (spikes from Pepsi Star Wars bottlecaps notwithstanding). The rise of Coca-Cola in postwar Japan went hand-in-hand with the popularity of vending machines (there's one for every 23 people here), and Coca-Cola solidified its position in part by taking the lead in developing the most innovative vending machines of any company (including one I saw the other day that let you watch current Coke TV commercials on a built-in LCD screen). Now Coke is somewhat analagous to Toyota in the U.S., a large, smart outside competitor to Japan's Big Four beverage companies (Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory).

Foreign companies provide an interesting alternative to working at more traditional Japanese establishments. Foreign companies in Japan have an image of being more socially progressive than Japanese firms, and women interested in seeking serious careers might consider working for American or European firms operating in Japan. The idea of semi-guaranteed "lifetime employement" came to an end in Japan the 1990s, but it's still common for most full-time employees to expect to stay at the same company their entire lives. Japanese who decide to work for a foreign company generally expect more performance-based pay than they might find at traditional Japanese corporations, along with opportunities for advancement beyond those based on age and seniority, which is still quite rare in more traditional Japanese companies. On the other hand, there's apt to be less stability at a gaishi-kei company, which is an important factor in conservative Japan.

Among other things, J-List sells hundreds of amazing DVDs of all types from Japan. While most of our DVDs are issued as "region free" (meaning you can play them on any DVD player), many of the indies, anime and other discs are zoned for region 2, meaning you need a special player to watch them. Happily, J-List carries three excellent region free DVD players that make it easy to enjoy *all* DVDs from Japan, including PAL discs from Europe. We have the full-featured DIVX-compatible DVD-7050, the handy portable M280, and the great half-height Karaoke-enabled DVD-7880K. Just in time for the busy Christmas season, we've dropped our price on the affordable 7880K to just $68! All players are very well made, are manufacturered for the North American market, feature international power supplies, and come with full 1 year manufacturers warranties. Also, all players are shipped double-boxed by our loving San Diego.