Friday, December 23, 2005

A watershed year for Japan, notes on Japanese education and university life, and Alo-Hello USA!

Hello from sunny San Diego. We've made the hop from Japan to the U.S. to enjoy our first Christmas at home in three years. As usual, the 24-hours-door-to-door ordeal is a hard one, but except for some December turbulence on the way over, everything went pretty smoothly. Incredibly, the kids even managed to sleep most of the way, which is a rarity. Of course, that means we've got to deal with two jet-lagged kids who are up at 1 am now. Hm, maybe things didn't go that smoothly after all...

Well, it's looking like 2005 is going to be a watershed year for Japan: this is the first year the population will actually shrink, meaning that the number of babies born will be less than the number of deaths, which is coming a few years sooner than previously expected. Like many countries in the West, Japan is a very low birth rate, since most couples choose to have just one or two children, and some Japanese are choosing not to bother with marriage at all (these people are somewhat rudely named make-inu or "loser dogs" in Japanese). In the U.S. and Europe there's a constant stream of immigrants to add to the societies, but in Japan, an island nation in more ways than one, populations will actually start to fall. What will happen? No one can say for sure, but a shrinking tax base and markets that decrease in size despite demand for quality products has got to hurt a country. If nothing else, it might bring about a recession-like business climate even though individual markets might be otherwise healthy.

Japan has a highly developed educational system, with a network of compulsory elementary and junior high schools, and both public and private high schools (which are actually outside of optional here, although almost everyone goes). One of the goals of the educational system is to get students to that all-important day in their lives, the University Entrance Exam, which happens in January and February, when they will be tested on math, science, history, Japanese and English (grammar), to determine if they'll get into a top name school (the top school being Tokyo University) or a suberi-dome or "stop the slide" school, which is there to "catch" students as they slide down the system. Although studying for the university entrance tests is incredibly difficult, a funny thing usually happens once a student get into a school: he usually switches from study mode to "play" mode, working part time jobs or joining clubs (a friend of mine was in the Waseda ODD Club, which stands for Out Door Drinkers). Truth be told, a large number of Japanese college students fail to learn and grow in any meaningful way at many universities, which is why I've told my kids that I'll be sending them to school in the U.S. Scary Japan fact #736? Japan is continuing to build many new universities despite the shrinking population of students.

We still have over 100 amazing Japanese calendars in stock for you, and although they're selling at an incredible rate (we started out with 250 different calendars), we fortunately got some last minute stock of many of our popular items, from the Studio Ghibli (always the #1 seller, it features all original art) to cute faces like Yu Yamada to the amazing kanji art of Mitsuo Aida and much more. Whenever a calendar sells out for that year, we know that we're likely to receive emails from customers asking where the calendar they wanted to buy went. All too often, the answer is that the calendar is gone for good. Don't let this happen to you! (And remember, you can get an extra discount by ordering 4 or more calendars, a great idea if you want to share the love with friends or outfit home and office with Japanese calendar action.)

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Japan's discovery of asbestos, difficulties fitting in in Japan, and even more on Japanese and English

It's often said that Japanese society follows behind the West by one or two decades or so, and time and time again I see evidence that this is true. Various changes in Japanese society, from laws governing discrimination in the workplace to child safety standards and public smoking, as well as the slowly growing divorce rate here, seem to come between ten and twenty years after the U.S. and Europe. This year Japan seems to have suddenly discovered that such a thing as asbestos exists and that it causes various forms of terrible cancer, despite the rest of world knowing this for the past quarter-century. Incredibly, asbestos was only recently banned, and hundreds of schools still use it as their primary insulation, possibly my daughter's. Ack!

No matter how much we may try to fit in to our life here in Japan, there are inevitable differences that crop up between our family and our Japanese friends. We finally finished reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and went to see the movie the other day. A friend of my son's wanted to come along since he liked the books, too, but there was a problem: we always watch the subtitled versions of films rather than the dubbed one, which kids generally see because they can't read the difficult kanji found in Japanese subtitles. My son's friend was too young to read the subtitles, so we had to go see the movie without him. I've always made it our family policy to only buy movies in English, which has really helped my children get linguistic input in their second language, but sometimes they know so much English they can't interface with others well.

Yes, the Japanese preference for watching foreign films with subtitles rather than dubbed in Japanese is one of the great benefits to living here as opposed to say, China, where all film are dubbed into the local language. This is no doubt part of Japan's special relationship with English and general open-mindedness when it comes to mixing English into their own language. Still, there are many times when the "English" the Japanese use can be confusing, when a word is imported but assigned a slightly different meaning. Many anime fans know that the word for magic is maho, but the Japanese use the English word magic (majikku) too, however only in reference to slight-of-hand tricks that a magician might perform. If you put real milk in your coffee, you'd use the Japanese word (gyunyu); the English word milk (miruku) is also used, but only when talking about powdered or liquid creamer. Every foreigner in Japan has to unlearn the word "bike" (baiku) in reference to a bicycle, since the term always means motorcycle here. And a few weeks ago, we went to buy a new sofa, and I was confused by the salesman, who showed us sofas made out of real leather (kawa) as well as ones made with imitation leather (called "leather" in Japanese, pronounced lezaa). Of course, the differently-defined words aren't "wrong," just different from my own North American dialect, but it can still take some getting used to.

It's never too late to give the gift of wacky things from Japan, thanks to J-List's convenient gift certificates, which you can give to anyone very easily. Gift certificates can be given as physical items sent in a gift box from our San Diego office, or (since Christmas is so close) "virtually," as a printable PDF file sent through email. You can enter any name you like for yourself and your recipient, enter a customized message, and choose whatever amount you want to give. Best of all, email gift certificates are free (physical delivery ones are $3), and they never expire.

We've got one more treat for everyone: a price drop our very cool portable region-free player, the AMW M-280, a take-anywhere DVD player with high-quality letterbox screen that plays DVDs from anywhere in the world, be they region 2 discs from Japan, PAL discs from Europe, you name it. It's got many excellent features, like the ability to play DVDs on a TV or accept video from an external source and display it on the unit's screen, two headphone jacks, and of course it has a full 1-year warranty. At the new price of just $148, it's too good for you not to pick one up. (They're great for keeping in the car, too, for long trips with the kids.)

Monday, December 19, 2005

Cold and snow in Japan, the Japanese vs Albert Einstein, and Japanese studying "best practices"

Hello from freezing, windy Japan! The country has been hit by a cold front of Siberian winds that have chilled the entire nation. As usual, the snow in Japan falls mainly on the Sea of Japan side, and people on the side of the country facing Korea and China are buried in white, while those of us on the other side of the Japan Alps merely get a lot of cold, biting wind. Lucky us.

The Japanese love it when famous foreigners come to Japan, and it's always a big deal when top stars like Tom Cruise or Keanu Reeves or "Bra-Pii" visits to promote their latest film. But this is not a new phenomenon -- back in the 1920s, another famous man visited the country, creating quite a stir at the time. The man was Albert Einstein, and he had been invited to hold a series of lectures on General Relativity so that the Japanese could understand his theories. Everywhere Einstein went he was followed by reporters and fawning fans, and he stayed many months here, traveling all around the country and sharing his thoughts with leading Japanese scientists. He also schlepped around the Kyoto area, enjoying traditional ryokan inns and feeding the deer in Nara, just like so many other gaijin have done since. He was also fascinated in the physics behind the nightingale floors in Nijojo Castle in Kyoto, which are designed to squeak when walked on so that ninja couldn't sneak into the castle. The Japanese really appreciate humility in a person, and this feature was more than abundant in Mr. Einstein, part of the reason for his great popularity here.

School has ended for my son, and he's been working on his winter vacation homework, since Japanese kids always get assignments over long breaks to keep them from going baka. Although I'd be dishonest if I said I liked everything about Japan's education system -- I really dislike the idea that there's only one correct way to approach any problem, and there's still not enough tolerance for people like my daughter who don't fit the standard mold of what a Japanese student is supposed to be -- all in all I am impressed with the quality of education my kids are getting here. I've noticed some "best practices" that the Japanese put into effect to make education more effective. For starters, the importance of benkyo (studying) is taught at a very early age, and when students start the first grade parents buy them a special study desk of their very own, a good way to set the tone for the next nine years of compulsory education. The Japanese use many tricks and rhymes to help them remember things like the names of the planets in our Solar System or the first 20 digits of pi, and my wife can recite more than half the periodical table of elements because of memory tricks like this she used when she was small. One of these tricks involves changing how their numbers are pronounced in order to make them easier to say quickly, which helps Japanese children memorize their timestables, although it adds a layer of difficulty for American fathers wanting to help their kids with their studies.

We've updated our contact form, making it easier for J-List customers to contact us securely. The new form lets you select your subject and automatically routes it to where it should go (e.g. manga questions to Yasu, DVD questions to Tomo, and so on). The form is secure, too, so you can leave mail to J-List without worrying about prying eyes. If you ever want to contact us, just visit the website and click the Contact J-List link in the upper left hand coner.