Saturday, December 17, 2005

Japan's lack of faith in construction, new foods you can eat in Japan, and the J-List Year-End Party

Japan is a nation founded on construction, and much of the country's modern economy is derived from building roads, bridges, and tall, sturdy buildings. Japanese have a lot of faith that their excellent engineering and building codes will protect them from the earthquakes that plague the country, but that faith is being sorely tested now. An architect named Hidetsugu Aneha has admitted to designing numerous structures including hotels, condominiums and even an office building in our own city using deliberately falsified data about the construction and amount of steel used in order to to keep costs down. As a result, a staggering 73 buildings in 17 different prefectures may have to be torn down, as they may collapse in the event of a large quake. Already several hotels constructed using the falsified data have closed their doors to avoid endangering guests, and the full extent of the scandal may not be known for some time.

When you come to live in Japan, it's inevitable that you'll get used to eating some new foods. Being an island nation dependant on the sea, Japanese eat a lot of seafood, something I've really come to appreciate since coming to live hear in 1991. Between delicious sushi, beautifully arranged sashimi and various other types of fish, I eat a lot more seafood here than I thought possible back in the States. Another staple of Japanese gastric culture is rice, and steamed white rice is eaten with almost meal -- in fact, the word for cooked rice (gohan) also serves as a general word for food in general. (Japanese often imagine that Americans eat every meal with a big plate of white bread on the side.) I still love good old Vlassic Dill Pickles from home, but I've come to appreciate some of the local pickled foods, especially Korean-style kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage, although the stuff they make in Japan is never spicy enough for me). Chocolate came to Japan only in the last century, and it's still thought of as somewhat exotic. A much more "down to Earth" Japanese snack treat might be yaki-imo, or baked sweet potatoes cooked over hot stones, sold by a vendor who drives around in a truck playing an eerie song in imitation of the Ice Cream Man from back home. It took me a while, but now I can really appreciate the taste and warmth of baked sweet potato eaten on a cold winter afternoon. (Here the yaki-imo song in MP3 format.)

Tonight is J-List's bonenkai (boh-NEN-KAI), or Year End Party, a big tradition in any company in Japan. Literally meaning "Forget the Past Year Party," it's a time to look back on all that's happened over the past year and say otsukare-sama deshita (ohts-KAH-ray-sah-mah deh-SHTA, "thanks for your hard work") to all employees. 2006 has been an outstanding year for J-List -- we've brought many cool things from Japan to tens of thousands of customers all over the world, and we thank everyone for helping us grow. After eating at a local restaurant famous for its fresh fish (the fish all live in a big tank in the center of the restaurant, and the sashimi guy plucks them out and prepares them as each order comes in), we'll hit a karaoke room and belt out some songs.

We've been hammering out lots of cool new Japan-themed T-shirt designs this month, since our shirts and hoodies make popular gifts, and today we've got another cool design we think you'll love. Thanks to the popularity anime, a lot of obscure Japanese words have been finding their way into English, and one word we're hearing a lot is "sukebe" (pronounced "su-KEH-beh"), which means someone with a dirty mind, essentially the same thing as the famous "ecchi." Our new shirt is perhaps the perfect stealth design, since people who know what it means will laugh, but those who don't will think it's just a generic T-shirt. Totally wacky!

Want to visit Tokyo? Thanks to up-and-coming film director Joe Doughrity and his DVD documentary Seven Days in Japan, you can! Joe made a film of his adventures exploring in Japan's most populous city, and shows you just about everything you've ever wanted to see, from anime museums to the nightlife of Shibuya and more -- he even visit an animation studio. It's a great way to enjoy a visit to Japan for just $10.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Christmas vs. Buddhism in Japan, all about New Year's, and a Japanese math problem for you to solve

The Christmas holiday means different things to different people, and each country has its own way of observing it. By and large, Japan is a Buddhist nation, although it seems that many people here don't consciously think about themselves in terms of the religion, despite the Buddhist altar, incense and candles in their house -- it's just atari-mae (ah-TAH-ree MAH-eh, mean "taken for granted") that these objects should be in a Japanese home. Because there isn't a long tradition of celebrating the yuletide as there is in the West, Christmas tends to be a bit of an external thing here, less of a holiday (not a holiday at all, actually, as everyone has to go to work), and more of a special time for different segments of society, such as children who look forward to presents, couples who are planning a special date, and friends gathering for a Christmas party with lots of karaoke. One thing I've noticed is that Christmas tends to be an American thing in Japan, having presumably been filtered through the U.S. occupation from 1945-1951, and Japanese today know who Santa Claus is but have little awareness of "Father Christmas" and other British images of the holiday (although they have Christmas Cake here). This is a bit of a bummer, since I've always loved the images presented in Tolkien's Father Christmas Letters (a treat if you don't know them, hunt them down on Amazon), and read them to my American/Japanese kids often.

Just a week after Christmas comes the most important of days in Japan, Oshogatsu, aka New Year's Day. Everyone is making preparations now, buying New Year's decorations to hang on their doors, display in the foyers of their homes, or in some instances, fix to the hoods of their cars. One of the most famous types of decorations is called kagami mochi, lit. "mirror rice cake," attractively arranged pressed rice that are delicious with a dollop of soy sauce. Tonight it's time for us to make our nengajo, or New Year's Cards, which we mail out to all our friends here. I'm torn between choosing something from the excellent Taste of Japan nengajo art collection we've posted to the site today or taking a picture of the kids with our dog Chibi (since 2006 is the Year of the Dog).

After school my son attends a juku, an after-hours study school that compliments his school curriculum and ostensibly covers some of the subjects he's learning at school, but in Japanese (since his school is 70% English). His juku teacher likes to give mind-bending math problems to the students and see if they can find the answers. Here are two such problems that stumped me. Each of the equations below is incorrect. Add one straight line somewhere in each of the two equations to make it correct. See here for the answer.

He're happy to announce that Ever 17 is now in stock. A great new release from Hirameki International for Windows PCs, this is an incredibly dramatic bishoujo title that all fans should play. It is May 1, 2017, and without warning, seven people are trapped in an undersea marine park. Water, air and food are in short supply, and the protective bulkhead can only withstand the pressure of the surrounding water for 119 hours. How will they interact, by cooperating or fighting each other for the scarce resources? Will love grow between the doomed members? Who will betray whom? A super new interactive title that all fans can enjoy, in stock in San Diego!

We've gotten in a huge volley of some of our last stock of 2006 anime, idol, JPOP and other calendars, so now is a great time to browse our selection and make your orders. Restocked calendars include this year's runaway hit Tsubasa Chronicle (all three versions), the always-popular Studio Ghibli, Totoro and Domo-kun calendars, lovely Leon Kadena, Gackt's amazing offering, beautiful Japanese women in hot springs, famous castles of Japan, and a whole lot more. The stock we have will be the last we get in for these calendars, so hurry!

Monday, December 12, 2005

NHK and Japanese history, a shocking fire at 3 am, and the living-challenged in Japan

Well, the popular historical drama Yoshitsune has come to an end, and what an end it was. Every year Japan's NHK public television network (the Domo-kun people) makes one breathtakingly beautiful samurai-era drama called the Taiga Drama, and this year's was Yoshitsune (yo-shee-TSOO-nay), the story of a popular folk hero in a war that preceded the Kamakura Shogunate of 1192. Last night the final episode aired, detailing the dramatic last battle of Yoshitsune and his retainers, especially his bodyguard Musashibo Benkei, who fought so hard for his lord that he died while standing on his feet and who has folk hero status in his own right. Taking its cues from the historical dramas of the BBC, Japan has a strong tradition of reliving its history through jidai geki (period dramas, where the word Jedi comes from). It's a very entertaining way for Japanese of all ages to learn about their history. It's common to see pop idols and other popular actresses widen their appeal with fans by appearing in jidai geki, such as former Morning Musume idol Maki Gotoh, who played Yoshitsune's sister.

We got a shock last night: we heard the air-raid siren that goes off every day at noon to signal lunchtime, but at 3 in the morning, which meant there was a fire somewhere in the city. We looked out the window, not expecting to be able to see anything, but were surprised to see a wall of flame and sparks shooting up just a few houses down from us. By the time I got there, the house had already been consumed by fire, and our local fire department was rushing to get water on it. Happily, no one lived in the house, but it was still a real shame, as it was a beautiful old-style Japanese home with real clay kawara tiles. They're still checking for the cause, but arson is feared.

Japan is a great place, with a lot to offer anyone who lives here, but the complexities of society can be too much for some people, who opt out of their rest of their lives through suicide. A staggering 30,000 Japanese choose to take their own lives each year, about the same number as in the U.S. despite the fact that Japan has half America's population. There are various reasons for the high suicide rate, of course -- those with failed businesses and lots of debt are a prime group in post-Bubble Japan, as are young people who face ijime, teasing bordering on psychological torture. Perhaps he biggest reason is the near total lack of a psychological help network, and an innate resistance to seeking help or counseling by people here. In recent years there's been an increase in online suicide groups who forms pacts and die together, often in the eerie forest known as Aokigahara Jukai, a "sea of trees" near Mt. Fuji. Tragically, no less than three separate group suicides were discovered on Sunday in Osaka, Nagoya and Sapporo, with a total of ten people ending their lives together. I personally can't understand the impetus to willingly join the living-impaired -- I mean, life is good, and if it's not for some reason, wait a while and things will get better. Each of us has a mysterious ability to change anything about our lives we want by improving our basic attitudes about life, so be mae-muki (MAH-eh MOO-kii, a really positive Japanese word I like that literally means "forward facing") and tomorrow will be a better day.

J-List sells our famous wacky Japanese T-shirts and soft, warm hoodies, hand-printed with care in San Diego by our experienced silkscreening staff. We're very happy with how successful they've become, and now we've got a new design for you. In Japanese, the letter "H" (pronounced "ecchi") is a euphemism for anything, er, naughty, and we have a new design that captures the bizarreness of this idea by parodying the famous Ecko rhinoceros logo. We've got both a standard T-shirt (in cool-looking Army Green) and a warm hoodie (in red) posted to the site for you now. Enjoy these wacky new designs! All our T-shirts make excellent Christmas gifts, too.