Friday, December 09, 2005

All about the busy month of December, Japanese dialectology, and the new color of money

We've entered that hectic time near the end of the year that the Japanese call shiwasu, which was originally the name for the 12th month under the lunar calendar, and which now describes that extra-busy few weeks at the end of the year when no one has enough time to do the things they need to get done. This is the month companies will have their bonenkai (boh-nen-KAI) which literally means "forget the past year party," a long tradition going back to the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). A bonenkai is a big party held by companies or other groups where everyone eats, drinks and looks back on the events of the past year -- it's a great stress reliever, and lots of fun. December is also the season for OH-soji or "big cleaning": you always clean your house from top to bottom in December so you can start the new year with a clean house (especially the doors -- for some reason clean doors are very important). Every third TV commercial these days is an advertisement for cleaning supplies with bizarre names like "Quickle Wiper" and "Charmy Green."

Like all languages, the Japanese language has many dialects, from well-known ones like Osaka-ben and Kyoto-ben to the unintelligible utterances of people from the Tohoku region of northern Honshu, whose strangely inflected speech is caused (according to one theory) by centuries of living in the cold, which encouraged people to learn to speak with shorter words and not open their mouths as widely while talking. When the capital of Japan was officially moved from Kyoto to Edo (which was renamed Tokyo or "East Capital" in homage to the cities of Beijing and Nanjing, "North Capital" and "South Capital" respectively), the official language of Japan became the dialect used in Tokyo. Today Japanese from all regions of the country have to come to terms with this bi-dialectical aspect of their language, the existance of their own local dialect in relation to the "official" language taught in schools, which can differ quite a lot. In the U.S., we don't have a physical region that we define standard American English by, just as we lack an official body to define the boundaries of our language like the L'Académie française in France -- whatever dialect they're using on the evening news is the most accurate bellweather of standard American English, for the most part.

I see that the U.S. Treasury is going to be adding color to its bills soon, introducing shades of blue and orange to the $20 and $50 bills. The Japanese have always used money that was colored very differently -- blue for the 1000 yen note, purple for the 5000 yen and brown for the 10,000 yen note. Having differently colored money makes it easier to use and lessens the chance you'll plunk down the wrong bill at the supermarket, an important consideration in a country where 20% of the population is age 65 or older. When Japanese go to the U.S., they need to be careful to avoid making mistakes with their dollars.

It's 2006 calendar season around here, and we're happy to announce we got about 20 restocked calendars on the site, including lovelies Leon Kadena and Ryoko Mitake, lots of Japanese gardens, castles and beautiful kimono idols, anime calendars like School Rumble and Fullmetal Alchemist, and other cool calendars like The Dog, Gamera, and more. Our calendar stock continues to be under a lot of pressure as dozens of orders flow in daily, so browse our restocked calendars today before the items you want disappear. J-List products make great gifts for those special otaku on your list, and we hope you'll check out our new products and put in your order!

Went with my son up to Karuizawa last weekend. With only two of us instead of the usual four, we were able to Miata! Despite the snow and freezing temperatures around us, we had fun.

These mountains are a bit more beautiful when it's not the dead of winter.

The tip to Karuizawa was enjoyable, but getting the car stranded and needing to ask some passersby for help was ot exactly fun.

Not all Lucky Cats are cute. This is the mangiest Lucky Cat I've ever seen in my life.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Japanese recommendations for living longer, sadness in the news, and all about capsule toys

The Japanese are some of the longest-lived people on the planet, with women living 84 years and men 78 years, on average. A recent feature story in National Geographic delved into the reasons for the especially long life spans in places like Okinawa, Japan and Sardonia, Italy, and came up with some interesting advice for readers: eat more vegetables and foods like beans, drink red wine, reduce sugar intake, maintain lifelong social relationships, and always have an ikigai, a Japanese word meaning "reason for living" -- something you do every day that gives you pleasure and a reason to keep doing it. There are other factors that contribute to Japanese longevity, including its network of competent hospitals and clinics, it's system of national health insurance for people who aren't insured through their workplaces, and the thorough regular check-ups called ningen dokku, which literally means "human dock" and implies going into "dry dock" for a top-to-bottom inspection, like a ship. I recently had my first ningen dokku and boy, they really do check for everything: five hours of tests including blood screening, hearing/vision tests, x-rays and ultrasound imaging of internal organs, and more. Everything went smoothly, although there was a small snag with the machine that took a picture of my cornea -- Japanese eyes are all brown (although they'll tell you "black" if you ask them), and apparently, the tint my own blue eyes caused the machine to keep registering an error. The hardest part was the dreaded stomach-cam, a snake-like CCD camera they slide down your throat, important in Japan since stomach cancer is a leading killer here.

It's a sad time to turn on the television in Japan these days, with nothing but heart-wrenching headlines, it seems. First, a seven year old girl in Hiroshima was killed, surprisingly by a Peruvian man, a rare violent crime committed by a foreigner here (most gaijin-related crimes, when they occur, involve selling drugs). Next, another first grader was kidnapped and murdered in Tochigi Prefecture, not far from where we are, in what may have been a copycat crime. While the loss of any human life is a tragedy and Japan's rate of murders is very low (1/16 that of the U.S.), there seem to be a disproportionately high number of incredibly cruel and senseless crimes that should never happen to anyone. Recently, companies have begun offering new services for parents who want to make sure their kids are safe, such as a small GPS device you can buy from security company Secom that lets you check where your child is via a web browser (we've already ordered ours). Part of the problem is the die-hard Japanese tradition of making kids walk to public school, no matter how far it is (my daughter walks 2 km to her school). Walking miles to school every day builds character, the thinking goes, and my wife and her mother have walked the same exact road to the same school, so this Japanese tradition isn't likely to change anytime soon.

Capsule toys are called gashapon, an onomatopoeic word that describes the turning of the knob and the sound the capsule makes as it falls out of the machine. In Japan's vending machine-happy culture, these miniature toys sold in plastic capsules have been popular for decades, and Japan's toy makers have really worked hard to bring a new level of detail to the toys that are created. Another word for capsule toy is gacha gacha, again describing the sound of the capsules rattling around inside the machine, and we've got a cool item for you today: Gacha Gacha Doraemon, a large toy featuring Japan's famous "cat of robot type" that is a fun capsule toy vending machine game.

Remember that J-List is loaded to the gills with fabulous 2006 calendarsright now, with great anime, JPOP, cute idol, sports and other calendars in stock, all sold only in Japan. Our calendars are going fast, though -- just a week ago we had more than 200 different ones in stock, but we're already down to 160+ as our stock of calendars is depleted. If you'd like to brighten your room or office with a unique Japanese calendar in 2006, we highly recommend that you browse our selection now, before the calendars you want are gone.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Japanese concepts of friendship, my life as "Santa-san" and phone straps from the Edo Period

It's funny how how tenuous the meanings of seemingly basic words can be. In English, the word "friend" is pretty straightforward, meaning someone you are friendly with, or just maybe, someone you are romantically involved with, but don't want to admit it to others. Most of my English-speaking "friends" are close in age to me, but I certainly could have a friend who was 25, or 45, or 75, if I wanted to. It's not uncommon to classify someone I know only as a passing acquaintance as a "friend," too, for convenience or to avoid being rude. In Japanese, however, the concept of what a friend is can be quite different. The most common word for friend is tomodachi (which literally means "those who you go with"), and it has a more "close" feel to it than the English word. Tomodachi in school years are almost always the same age; otherwise you'd use the term senpai (for upperclassman) or kouhai (for underclassman), which are quite different concepts in Japan's vertically-oriented society. The other day, my son was playing dodgeball with a boy he's known since preschool -- they've played together for years. I talked about the boy with my wife, using the word tomodachi. My wife corrected me, saying the boys weren't friends in that sense, but were instead osana-najimi (o-SAH-NAH NAH-jee-mee). The word, which comes up in anime and bishoujo games quite a lot, refers to someone you were very close to since childhood, and it seems to be both more and less than the English word friend. "An osana-najimi is different from tomodachi," my wife explained to me. "They're always there, and you don't even notice them after a while. You get so used to being with each other, it's like air."

There comes a time in the life of every gaijin that he is called upon to perform a service for his Japanese hosts. I'm talking, of course, about dressing up as "Santa-san" (as he's usually called by Japanese kids) for the school Christmas Party. Christmas is a very bright and happy time in Japan, and no Christmas Party would be complete without a real live gaijin Santa Claus, dressed from head to toe in bright read "Santa wear." This year I was asked to play Santa at a preschool run by a friend of ours, and I was happy to oblige, handing out gifts to all of the kids with a hearty ho-ho-ho! and being careful not to speak Japanese so as not to break the mood. The kids were happy to see a "real" Santa Claus and thanked me as I handed out their presents. As usual, not everyone was happy to see a big, red foreigner invade their school, and several of the younger kids were bawling their eyes out while the preschool teachers comforted them.

If you've browsed our website, you've probably seen the "phone straps" we sell, which are popular in Japan as stylish attachments for your cell phone, although you can use the straps with camera, PDAs like Palm Pilots, Sony PSP, and as a keychain, since the nylon string is very strong. Well, did you know these phone straps were actually an updated form of Japanese art going back to the 17th century? Since kimonos have no pockets, men in the Edo Period needed a way to carry their money and other belongings, and they started using small cloth pouches with drawstrings and intricately carved figures called "netsuke" (net-TSOO-keh) on the ends of the strings. To help you add a little bit of classic Japanese tradition to your daily life, we've added some great netsuke straps featuring Lucky Cat Hello Kitty, which promise to bring you good luck in the form of business success, passing a difficult test, succeeding at finding love, and traffic safety. If you have a cell phone or similar portable gadget, why not snag a cool netsuke strap for it?

J-List sells region free DVD players for customers who want to be able to enjoy DVDs from all over the world, not just the Hollywood-approved region you happen to be living in. Our popular players include the Karaoke-enabled DVD-7880K and the excellent DIVX-capable DVD-7050. We also sell our outstanding portable player, the AMW M-280, a 7 inch widescreen DVD player that's loaded with features, including region free disc playback, PAL/NTSC support, the ability to output DVDs to the beautiful 7 inch 16:9 screen or to an external TV and also play external video on the build-in screen. The M-280 comes with a 1-year warranty, like all our DVD players. We've dropped our price on the M-280 by $10, to just $168, a fantastic price for a well-made portable player like this.

As a general rule, Japanese houses and many businesses have a recessed area called a genkan where you leave your shoes before entering. J-List's genkan is currently a massive mountain of hundreds of wrapped boxes, calendar tubes and other packages, waiting to be taken to the post office first thing in the morning (we fill up about two vans per day this time of year). J-List's staff is primed and ready to speed your order out to you ASAP, either from Japan or from San Diego. Please browse our site and let us know how we can serve you!