Friday, November 25, 2005

Japan as the land of contradictions, the benefits of teaching ESL, and our Mona Neko T-shirts

Japan is nothing if not a land of contradictions, where you can connect to the Internet via a high speed cellular connection while speeding on a fast shinkansen, and yet there are still fish-sellers who ride around on bicycles selling fish to households door-to-door, where technology is embraced while traditions, even stupid ones like the guy coming to each house in our neighborhood to collect our 2000 yen NHK fee every month, are preserved. I always enjoy making trips to Tokyo, where you can see an incredible range of on the train with you: the salaryman, the teenager rapidly thumbing her keitai (portable phone), high school girls talking in their own world...and then a gothic lolita, a cute girl wearing a 19th century maid uniform, staring out the window as she waits for her stop. I thought Japan was supposed to be famous for conformity? I guess I don't have this place figured out yet...

If you ever want to learn a subject well, I recommend you try teaching it. When I came to Japan to teach English as a Second Language, I had no idea how much of my own language I didn't understand, and yet in order to do right by my students I had to learn. For better or worse, the Japanese usually study English with a focus on grammar and vocabulary, since that's what appears on university entrance exams (none of this namby-pamby "communicative" English for them, thanks). When a student asks why an infinitive verb (futeishi) is used in a particular sentence instead of a gerend (domeishi), you want to give him an answer more substantive than "it just sounds better that way." One especially difficult part of English are two-word verbs like "take out" "take off" "take over" and so on. Why does "throw up" mean something different from "throw out"? My time as a teacher gave me a lot of respect for anyone who can tackle something as difficult as English, with its dizzying mix of cris- crossing rules and exceptions.

The Japanese have really embraced online culture, as seen by the grown of mammoth communities like famous 2ch BBS (pronounced "ni channel"). In addition to spawning the true story of Densha Otoko, in which an geeky otaku found love with a beautiful woman by asking for advice from readers of the BBS, 2ch is also a popular place for ASCII-art creation, the most famous being the Mona Neko cats. Mona Neko (whose name comes from the Japanese phrase Omae mo na! or "The same to you!" used in online flame wars on 2ch) and his friends have become such a popular symbol of Internet culture in Japan, we decided to make some wacky T-shirts as a tribute, which are on the site now: an image of the Mona Neko cats drinking their sake (they love sake), and a fun tribute to "panchira" (which all men love, whether they admit it or not) Be sure to check out the wacky Japanese Numa Numa video here, with attempts at matching the words with Japanese meanings, here. (It's really cool, I watch this silly thing a few times a day.)

One of the most anticipated snack treats from Japan is finally here: the delicious winter-only Melty Kiss, delicious fudge cubes coated with cocoa powder that are heavenly to eat. The name is also one of the most bizarre and fun bits of wasei eigo (lit. "made in Japan English"), capturing the image of a warm stolen kiss with snow falling all around you. We've got all three flavors for 2005 in stock: Precious Cocoa, Matcha (Green Tea) and Strawberry!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The nuances of "Ogenki desu ka?" and a new movements in Japanese politics

Ogenki desu ka? This is one of the first phrases a student of Japanese encounters, and it corresponds to the greeting "how are you?" although "are you well?" is a better translation as it's a yes/no question. In the context of this greeting, genki means "fine" or "well" and you can reply to this greeting by saying Hai, genki desu (Yes, I am fine). But genki can have other meanings, such as describing children running around ("energetic"), or someone beaming with happiness about something, or someone getting healthy after an illness. The word can also refer to a man in state of, er, woodiness. The o on ogenki desu ka is an honorific prefix that shows respect, and it's often found on family titles (okaasan = mother, obaasan = grandmother), Buddhist words (otera = Buddhist temple), and "cute" words often around kids or babies (oshiri = a cute-sounding word for a person's rear end).

The newest theme in Japan's political world is eliminating waste, and Japanese municipalities are nothing if not good at wasting the public's money. Although the concept of company employees enjoying guaranteed lifetime employment faded during the 1990s, Japan's sprawling layer of bureaucratic komuin (koh-MOO- een), public employees who work in city and prefectural offices, have never had to fear recessions or budget cuts or risutora, the Japanese word for layoffs (from the English word "restructure"). Due to the lack of oversight and years of poor planning, there are too many public employees, three million in the entire country of 120 million, and their salaries add up to a whopping $180 billion a year. Engaging in "bashing" of public employees is a popular pasttime by average Japanese, and my wife is always happy to tell me how slow the clerks moved in the City Office when she went to pick up an official copy of a document. When someone from the city needs to come out to J-List to check on, say, a telephone pole, you can be sure that at least three engineers will show up, two more than are probably needed. Before I started J-List in 1996, I was fortunate to get to work for five months in the local City Office, and I got to see first hand how municipal government worked from the inside. My job was to publish a newsletter for the English-speaking residents of our city, and to act as a bridge between Japanese employees in the city government and foreigners who couldn't speak the language. Having seen both sides of the coin, I can say that there is a lot of room for improvement in Japan's municipal government.

Among the many unique products J-List offers are the DVDs, photobooks and magazines of Yulia Nova, a beautiful Russian model who was discovered by a Japanese photographer and became a sensation both here in Japan as well as on the Internet. Her next three DVDs are coming soon, and we've posted them for preorder now. The new titles feature all new footage shot over the past year that allows fans to see Yulia in a variety of amazing scenes through three seasons: Moscow in the Winter, Spring and Summer. The new titles are long playing (85 mins. each) and are mosaic-free, too!

J-List sells our wacky original T-shirts with funny slogans in Japanese, as well as unique Japan-related designs. While many stores only stock the most popular sizes of T-shirts (typically M-XL), J-List goes out of our way to make as many sizes as we can available, from S (and even XS, on some of the girl's shirts) to 2XL and 3XL for the men's shirts and hoodies. We've posted 3XL sized shirts for our popular kanji shirts (Gaijin, Ecchi and Sakebito), so if you need a larger size, come visit J-List now. We've also got many close-out designs that we're clearing out to make room for new shirts, so if you're on the large side, be sure and browse our site for some bargains!

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Old West comes to Karuizawa, and World Peace through Japanese verb conjugations

This weekend we all got in the car and headed off to Karuizawa ("ka-roo-EE-za-wa"), our favorite mountain getaway, for a dip in the hot springs at the foot of volcanic Mt. Asama. Driving through the town, we stopped off at the Cowboy House restaurant, a hilariously overdone recreation of an Old West steakhouse complete with barbecue sauce, baked beans and even Coors beer. The cowboy atmosphere was so complete that a funny thing happened when we left: I momentarily forgot which side of the road I should be driving on. It seems my subconscious had somehow analyzed all the American stuff around me and decided to go into "America mode." Fortunately I caught myself and got back on the right (left) side of the street.

Japanese is an "agglutinating" language, which basically means that it puts lots of information (past tense, passive voice, etc) inside the verb form, which is good because you don't have a lot of helping verbs flying around ("he would have been able to help her if she'd told him"), but a little difficult because you have to memorize more verb forms. Most of the time learning the verbs is not a problem since they follow reliable patterns. For example, three verbs you learn early on are the formal verbs tabemasu (to eat), nomimasu (to drink) and ikimasu (to go), which act as both simple present and future tense (both "I go (every day)" and "I will go" in one verb conjugation). Change the masu to mashita and you have the formal past tense ("I went") -- very easy. Some other forms that exist are informal present tense (iku), also called dictionary form since this what you find in dictionaries; an informal past tense; a command form; and the useful "te" form which you can use to make requests (tabete kudasai, please eat) or join words together (take + come combine to form "bring").

Another verb ending students of Japanese learn early is masho, which corresponds to "let's...," as in "let's eat" (tabemasho), "let's drink" (nomimasho), or "let's go" (ikimasho), to use the above examples. This is more than just a handy suffix to allow you to say many things in Japanese -- it's actually a reflection of Japan's unique group-centric culture. In a non-smoking area in the U.S., you'd probably see signs saying something like "do not smoke," giving you no choice in the matter. In Japan, however, it's common for such notices to use the gentler "masho" ending, effectively saying "let's not smoke in non-smoking areas," (tobacco o yamemasho), "let's put our telephones into vibration mode" (manner mode ni shimasho) and so on. It seems to be part of the Japanese psyche that they respond better to an inclusive request rather than a specific command or rule. This "let's request" form has a very soft sound to it, and parents and care-givers use it to make even the most stubborn child do what's asked of them.

Remember that J-List is brimming with great 2006 calendars
right now, with more than 200 different anime, JPOP, swimsuit idol, nature photo, desktop, sports, and other items in stock. In addition to very popular calendars -- Studio Ghibli, Howl's Moving Castle, Mihiro, Reon Kadena -- we also make it our mission to provide an amazing selection of other calendars that are only sold in Japan, from the esoteric to the bizarre to the just plain fun. Studying Japanese, or just like the aesthetic look of kanji? We've got several calendars that feature Japanese words and slogans, beautiful kanji proverbs, and more. Interested in Japanese contemporary art? We've got some great art calendars in stock this year. Love Japan's attractive actresses or swimsuit models? We've got many to browse through. A word of warning though: Japan is a very seasonal place, and these great calendars are only available now. The best time to make your 2006 calendar order is now!

More random pictures for you to browse. This is Dairy Domo-kun and Cabbage Domo-kun, a rural version of NHK's famous mascot to advertise Gunma's good quality foods.

Daughter holding rabbits at the petting zoo slash farm we went to.

Hey, this is where they sell the Frower Angels.

Pizza Hut's pizza is not bad, but darn if their salads aren't the best in all Japan.

I was amused to see what was written on my salad dressing.