Friday, November 18, 2005

Unique businesses that exist in Japan, Rubik's Cube, and more Funny English Words

Japan is a unique place, and the economic forces that cause this kind of business or that to spring up can be quite interesting to observe. During my 14 years in Japan, I've seen quite a few businesses that don't exist in the U.S., or if they do, I've certainly never come across them. One convenient service are the daiko, or replacement driver taxis, basically a taxi with two drivers; if you drink too much while at a bar, one will drive you home while the other follows in your car, so you have it in the morning. Near my house there is a company called Orange Hat, which is basically a building with nothing but vending machines of every kind inside, from video games to UFO Catchers (e.g. crane games) to dispensers that sell you microwaved meals. Since the business can be operated with just one caretaker employee, it's a profitable concept even in very rural areas. Nearly all Japanese homes and apartments have bathtubs and showers, but a couple of decades ago this wasn't the case, and people went to a sento (public bath; the kanji is 銭湯, so named becuase it used to cost one sen, or 1/100 or a yen, to go there) a few times a week to keep clean; nowadays, sento provide a place to relax and bathe socially. What you may think of as an Internet Cafe is usually called a Manga Kissa (Manga Coffee Shop) here in Japan, a place where customers can sit and read manga, surf the net, play online or console games, study and of course have a cup of coffee. And for those times when couples feel the need to be alone, there are always Japan's famous Love Hotels, where you can enjoy a clean, private environment with or without the Arabian Nights theme.

Japan is experiencing a revival of the classic Rubik's Cube, with sales of the addictive and frustrating (to me) puzzle cube soaring through the roof. The 2005 Rubik's Cube Championship was recently held at Disney World in Florida, and among the 145 contestants was Yuki Hayashi, a well known Rubik's Cubist from Japan, who managed solve the standard 3x3x3 cube in 12 seconds. These guys can solve a Rubik's Cube with blindfolds on -- it's really amazing to see!

The Japanese do like English, and use it to add spice to their speech, but some of the words are changed so much you might not recognize them. For example, the word "my" is used to indicate ownership of something, and banks might use the term to advertise special rates on a "My Home Loan" (home mortgage) or "My Car Loan" (a loan for that special automobile you've been pining for). Various other simplified words abound, for example, a child's crib is a "baby bed," screwdrivers come in "plus" and "minus" varieties, and when a man no longer wants children he's likely to get a "pipe cut." Titles of Western movies can also be hard for Japanese to remember, so they're sometimes reduced into simpler English. "The Professional" was retitled "Leon," "I Know What You Did Last Summer" became simply "Last Summer," and "Honey, I Shrank the Kids" became "Micro Kids."

At J-List, we genuinely love Japan and want to help people around the world learn more about this enigmatic place. During my time in Japan, I've made heavy use of a powerful tool for students of Japanese: Canon's Wordtank electronic dictionary. A great dictionary that's packed full of great features for serious students, including 11+ different complete dictionaries, full English menus, and a handy compact size despite the easy to use QWERTY keyboard that makes looking up words very speedy. We're happy two announce two new models of Canon's excellent Wordtank in stock, the brand new C50 and deluxe G55, two excellent brand new dictionaries for you.

Christmas is coming, and J-List has stocked up on thousands of amazing and unique gifts for the Japanophile on your shopping list (even if it's just you). From our original kanji T-shirts to wacky plush toys to calendars you can only find in Japan and much more, J-List has that unique gift you're searching for. Since most of J-List's products ship from Japan, it makes sense to browse our site and make your order right now, since shipping can slow down around Christmas.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Wedding bells in the Imperial Palace, beautiful autumn in Kyoto, and George Bush in Japan

Every autumn in Japan the leaves change to beautiful shades of red and yellow and vermillion, a spectacle called koyo (紅葉, lit. "crimson leaves"). And just as the leaves are starting to turn, we know we'll be tempted with a barrage of TV commercials by Japan's JR train line promoting Kyoto in the fall, showing incredible images of the city with autumn-colored leaves all around, along with the very effective slogan, So da! Kyoto e iko! ("Hey, I've got an idea! Let's go to Kyoto!"). Well, there's a very famous guest in Kyoto right now: none other than George W. Bush, who is in Japan for a two-day meeting with Prime Minister Koizumi. Last night the two leaders took in Kinkakuji, the famous Golden Pavilion, and today they're going to be discussing issues ranging from Iraq to U.S. bases to bird flu. The U.S. is also expected to press Japan to resume beef imports, which have been on hold since 2003 over Mad Cow. Mr. Bush will be the first guest in the newly completed Kyoto State Guest House, a sprawling facility constructed to house international events and foreign dignitaries. I wonder if he got to take a Japanese bath and sleep in a real futon? That would be so cool. As far as world leaders go, I can't think of anyone who needs to be exposed to some outside ideas more than Bush, and maybe he can realize there's an actual world outside of Texas and Washington in Japan. Fingers crossed that there will be no projectile vomiting on any Japanese Prime Ministers this time around...

Japan has been seized with a bout of "wedding mania" after the happy marriage of Princess Nori, daughter of the current Japanese Emperor Akihito, to an employee of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. The ceremony, while beautiful, was remarkable because it was just another Japanese wedding, despite the royal status of the bride. After a very traditional Shinto ceremony at the Meiji Jingu Shrine in which Norinomiya-sama wore a juni-hitoe, a traditional 12-layer kimono dating back to the 10th century, the happy couple had a fairly unremarkable reception at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. The news was all over the story, from interviewing some of the the 6000 people who lined up on the street just so they could wave to the princess as she drove by to giving full report on what was served during the reception. The reception itself followed the well-defined mold of Japanese weddings, starting off with a speech by the groom's boss (in this case, Tokyo mayor Shintaro Ishihara, who you may remember is the guy who wrote "The Japan That Can Say No" a decade ago) and ending with an emotional speech by the bride, thanking her parents for raising her and promising to find happiness in her new life. Princess Nori's husband is a sports car collector and loves driving his Lotus Elise, and the newscasters were laughing at the image of a the demure former Japanese princess zooming around at high speeds with her husband.

Over the years, J-List has been honored to bring anime fans from all over the world a direct link to Japan. Because we're fans of Hayao Miyazaki's films, we've always gone out of our way to bring great Studio Ghibli products to everyone. Today we're happy to announce the release of Howl's Moving Castle
on DVD, complete with full optional subtitles in English, French and Japanese, and full dubbed tracks in English and French as well. We've got both versions, too, the normal 2-disc set and the super deluxe 4-disc collector's edition, with making of, interviews with the director and more. Howl's Moving Castle is the story of a plain girl whose life is touched by the mysterious wizard Howl, and it's a great story for all fans of Mr. Miyazaki! (The DVDs are zoned for region 2, however, and we recommend the excellent region free DVD players we stock, starting at just $68).

Monday, November 14, 2005

All about Japanese TV, the fun of variety shows, and respect I've gained for American medicine

One of the fun things about living in Japan is getting to watch Japanese television. There are 5 national television networks in Japan, NTV, Fuji TV, TBS, TV Asahi, and TV Tokyo, and most viewers enjoy a variety of entertainment from these five channels. Our family watches news (Newsstation 23, World Business Satellite), dramas (my wife is watching the current Fuji drama with heart throb Mokomichi Hayami), sports (my wife's father watches baseball every day, and sumo when it's on), and anime (we never miss Sazae-san on Sunday nights). In addition to the traditional TV stations, there are upstart satellite broadcasting networks like SkyPerfectTV, which carries American programming like CNNj and Fox Japan (for fans who can't wait for the latest episodes of 24 to show up at the DVD rental shop).

A big staple of Japanese television is the variety show, which by definition features a wide variety of subjects, from asking non-bilingual Japanese to answer questions in broken English while a translation of what they're really saying appears on the screen, to shows that challenge people to live for a month on just $100, to "truth or dare" contests where they make popular actresses get into a bathtub of very-hot water for 30 seconds. Often these variety shows go for shock value, like the show I caught that made swimsuit idol Otoha climb to the highest point of the the 509-meter tall Tapiei 101 Tower in Taiwan -- on the outside of the building. Another show offered to grant wishes sent in by viewers, as long as they were interesting. One boy said he'd always wanted to take a bath in a giant vat of caramel custard pudding (aka flan), so the producers got a hundred volunteers from his town to prepare it for him; but in the end, the boy decided he didn't want to jump into the custard since everyone had worked so hard to make it, so they all ate it instead. Another man had always wanted to fly while holding helium balloons, but it takes hundreds of balloons to lift a man off the ground. The show constructed a giant net for him to wear on his back then filled it with balloons until he was able to "fly" 10 cm off the ground, finally fulfilling his dream. Variety shows like to capture bizarre moments of kawaii too, like when one show dressed cute-as-a-button Yuko Ogura as a baby seal took her to the polar bear tank at the zoo. The results were pretty hilarious -- see the video here (Windows Media required)

No matter how much I like living in Japan, there's just no replacement for good old American medicine when I'm sick, and whenever I go back the the States I always pick up Nyquil, Advil, Alka-Seltzer and other medicines I think I might need back in Japan. While my wife usually prefers Japanese medicine -- which is usually too weak for my big gaijin body -- she's starting to see the benefits of the stronger American remedies. Last month when she caught a head cold, she didn't waste any time asking me for "the strong stuff," and she was on her feet in no time. In addition to U.S. medicines being stronger than their Japanese counterparts, there's another difference: Japanese medicine bottles aren't required to have child-proof caps on them. As a result, Japanese almost never know how to open a child-proof cap, and I usually have to step in and help my wife when she's trying to get the bottle open.

When my children were small my mother bought us a book we've come to value a lot: Japanese Children's Favorite Stories, which contains English versions of all the famous children's stories that Japanese know, like Momotaro (Peach Boy) and the Old Man who made the Flowers Bloom. Happily, we've got this excellent book in stock in San Diego, and I heartily recommend it to all parents who want to treat their kids to some great stories from Japan. The book even comes with an audio CD, too!