Saturday, January 14, 2006

The music scene in Japan, ways to stay cheaply in Japan, and all about Valentine's Day

The music scene in Japan is rich and varied, with its own unique ebbs and flows of visual rock, hip hop, R&B, indies and even enka, the traditional music that fills the same role for the Japanese as country music does in the U.S. The flagship of Japan's music scene is JPOP, and just as anime and manga have found a place in the hearts of fans all over the world, there is no aspect of Japan's pop world that isn't followed by aficionados in other countries. It's interesting to live in Japan and watch the march of progress in the pop scene here, the rise and inevitable fall of influential producers like Tetsuya Komuro (whose "Komuro Family" ruled the 1990s), Morning Musume creator Tsunk, and boy-band kingmaker Johnny Kitagawa of Johnny's Entertainment Group. Every year there are various music-related fashion trends, like when Amuro Namie created a generation of "Amullers" that imitated her slinky style, or the effect on fashion of the chic Kumi Kouda now. The past is often prelude, too: when we started J-List in 1996, there was no hotter JPOP team than Ami and Yumi of Puffy. Now, a decade later, they've made a name for themselves outside of Japan and even have their own cartoon series. Currently a bubblegum pop song by mock Pro Wrestler and comedian Koriki and his stylish backup singers is one of the most popular songs in Japan -- see the music video right here.

Back when I was single, I did a fair bit of traveling around Japan, hitchhiking or riding trains on "Youth 18" tickets, which allow you to go anywhere in Japan for around $25 a day, as long as you don't mind taking 14 hours to get from Osaka to Tokyo. (Poor gaijin like me who live in Japan don't get to buy the spiffy Japan Rail tickets that tourists from overseas have access to.) I've been from Hokkaido to Hiroshima and have really enjoyed getting out and seeing the country. During my travels I've stayed at various places, including conventional "business" and less-conventional "love" hotels, western-style youth hostels, minshuku (a kind of Japanese bed & breakfast where everyone eats and sleeps in a big communal room), and "saunas" (a public bath with a sauna with a central room where you can sleep on the floor for free, trying to ignore the snores of everyone around you). But I've always been a fan of capsule hotels, the miniature honeycomb-like hotel rooms found in larger Japanese cities, a great way to sleep on the cheap. Inside your capsule you have everything you need: bed, blanket, pillow, a little TV, radio with alarm, and a curtain for privacy. Capsule hotels usually have large communal baths and saunas, too. They're cheap, too: you can stay in the heart of Tokyo's hip Shibuya district for around $40.

Valentine's Day is not far off, in case you wanted to do something special and Japan-related this year. Rather than being a day for couples to go on a special date together, "Valentine Day" has become a day for women to show their devotion to men by giving them chocolate. For casual giving there are hundreds of prepackaged chocolate gift boxes sold in stores, and often female office workers will give small boxes of giri choco or "obligation chocolate" to male co-workers to be nice to them, knowing that they will get a return gift on March 14, designated as White Day. Girlfriends, wives and daughters will often make hand-made chocolates for their special men to show their love and thank them for working hard. If you'd like to give this a try this year, we've got a selection of chocolate molds that you can pour melted chocolate or cake mix into, and J-List sells dozens of amazing chocolate treats from Japan, from Japan-only Kit Kat varieties to Pocky and much more.

This is Charlie and Helicopter Man.

Another beautiful girl, dressed as a Miko, or Shinto Shrine Maiden.

Giant penis. Getting it up every day was a big challenge.

We all really liked the tall girl, who towered above me.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Standing in the "Nihonjin Line" at Narita, Japan's truck gap, and Japanese tax-related civic spirit

"You know you've been in Japan too long when you think it's cool to stand in the 'Japanese only' line at Narita airport." The first time a foreigner comes to Japan, he stands in the line for gaijin with the other foreigners while his paperwork is processed. Visa-holders who leave Japan intending to return must get a special re-entry stamp in their passports, and if you have this you get to stand in the shorter line for Japanese -- and this is what I did yesterday, after my 10+ hour flight from LAX to Narita, which brought me back to my cold, windy adopted country. After clearing customs, I took advantage of one of the great conveniences of Japan, Yamato Delivery Service, who will take a person's heavy suitcase and deliver it to their door for around $15, saving me from lugging it onto the bus. Yearning for a taste of home, I bought a quick onigiri, a triangular ball of rice with nori seaweed on the outside and salmon on the inside, and some oolong tea, and got on the Azalea Bus (named after the official flower of our prefecture, Gunma) for home.

Whenever I flip between the U.S. and Japan I know I'm in for a little culture shock, whether it's being amazed at the giant size of a "small" drink at McDonald's in the States or the "short" capuchinos sold at Starbucks in Japan. This time I was struck by the cars I noticed on the road. For the most part, the cars in Japan are pretty much the same ones you see in any other country, although they often have funny names like Soarer, Town Bee, Bongo Friendee, Thanks Chariot and Super Saloon. But there's one category of auto that's almost totally missing from Japanese streets: the venerable pickup truck. While pickups by Ford, Toyota and other companies comprise a large percent of car sales in North America, the situation is quite different in Japan. Here, the very idea of a "truck" is a boxy, industrial thing, used by companies for hauling but never owned as an icon of convenience or style. Well, que sera, sera, or as the Japanese say, junin toiro, which literally means "ten people, ten colors" (e.g., everyone has their own unique preference).

In many ways Japan's tax system is similar to the U.S., since the two countries follow the GATT, which governs how accounting rules between countries work. Japan's version of the IRS is the Zeimusho (税務署), the Ministry of Taxation, and every city has a Tax Office to organize the collecting of the various national, prefectural and city-level taxes. One difference I've noticed between the U.S. and Japan is that there's a lot more "community building" here, with mechanisms designed to bring about a feeling of happy, patriotic spirit when it comes to paying of taxes for the national good. My mother-in-law is a long-time member of the local Kanzeikai, a formal union of business-owners, accountants and other professionals whose stated goal is the "encouragement of honest and accurate paying of taxes." Last year the Kanzeikai members took a government-sponsored trip to Mongolia to see how taxes are collected in that country -- the 15% sales tax there made Japan's 5% consumption tax look very small by comparison. Another activity of the group is to stand on street corners and hand out pocket tissues (the kind you get with J-List orders) with slogans promoting the accurate declaration of income on tax forms as a person's civic duty. They also have seminars to educate members about how important taxes are to society. At one function, my wife was shown an educational movie about what kind of world we'd live in without taxes. For example, if your house was on fire, the fire department would give you a choice of "speedy" or "economy" dispatch services and then charge your credit card before sending out the trucks. The picture above is this year's feel-good "let's all pay our taxes" idol, Yukie Nakama (see her calendar here).

We've got good news for fans of our 2006 calendars: about 30 previously sold-out calendars are back on the site, as we go through and remove old orders in the system. This is a great second chance to get that excellent anime, JPOP, Japanese actress, traditional or other calendar that was sold out before. But our stock is severely limited, so we recommend that you browse our calendars right away before the calendars you want are gone again.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Japanese aesthetics not found in Vegas, how computers display Japanese, and bilingualism

We're on our way back from Las Vegas, tired but sated from our time here. The AVN show was good and we had a lot of fun, although at times I was somewhat overwhelmed by the scale of everything. I found myself thinking of one of the things I like about Japan: the tradition of wabi and sabi. Translatable as "sober refinement and elegant simplicity," the words basically boil down to "less is more," and serve to describe much of what I like about the products we sell at J-List. The girls and products on display at the show were certainly very flashy and nice to look at, but there was definitely something lacking because there was no restraint, nothing left to the imagination. The classic example of the Japanese aesthetic tradition of wabi and sabi says that a single rose in bloom is more beautiful than a whole rose garden. Another example I like to use is the American Godzilla film made back in the 1990s, which made sweeping changes to Toho's long-running series to add elements they thought would appeal to American viewers. Instead of a lone, legendary creature that is the focus of so much of our attention, the American film added hundreds of baby Godzillas for maximum thrill and action at every turn. It definitely lacked the wabi and sabi of the original films.

One of the major challenges for computers over the past two decades was getting to the point where something as complex as Japanese characters could be displayed and used easily, and thankfully, modern OSes like Mac OS X and Windows XP (Pro only) have support for Japanese built-in. Kanji is displayed using two bytes instead of one for English, which allows the 3000 or so complex kanji and kana characters used in Japanese to be expressed. Just as ASCII governs how characters will display on your computer monitor, there are encoding systems that convert bytes to actual Japanese characters. Unfortunately, there are several different codes out there, such as JIS, Shift-JIS and ISO 2022, and every once in a while an email message or web page will be made with the wrong encoding system from the one I've got set, resulting in the dreaded "moji-bake" (MOH-gee bah-KAY), in which text turns into meaningless goobledygook on-screen. Fonts in Japanese work pretty much the same as Western ones, with Postscript, Truetype etc., although since there are so many characters they have to describe, the fonts are huge, with some fonts in my Powerbook weighing in at 10 megs and up. Since Japanese fonts are more complex than western ones, they have room for cool characters, like hearts, pictures of telephones, icons for weather and the "onsen mark" that indicates where hot springs are in Japan. As far as the Japanese font is concerned, the special characters are just alternate kanji defined for words like "telephone" "music" and so on. The additional characters you can type using Japanese fonts helps make online ASCII art-style images like the Mona Neko from the 2ch BBS easier to create.

My Japanese wife and I work hard to raise our children so that they'll be bilingual in both English and Japanese. We do our best to encourage English, for example by buying only DVDs from the U.S., so if the kids want to watch a movie, they have to watch it in English. Getting them to actually speak English at home can be difficult though, since the kids know that I understand Japanese. Pretending not to understand and asking them to repeat what they just said in English doesn't work very well, so we try to come up with other ways to tackle English together. Sometimes we play "American family" and speak only English, but since we all know Japanese, it's hard. What works best is when we leave the kids in the U.S. and then disappear, which naturally forces them to speak English to everyone. There's nothing like immersion for language learning.

For the new update, the J-List staff has posted tons of new products, including new kawaii toys (Noma Neko straps!), Totoro items, anime trading cards, Hello Kitty items, snacks, restocked Domo-kun plush toys, and much more (more than I can write down, having just gotten in from Vegas anyway). For our 18 plus customers, we've got tons of new products too, including new DVDs, UMDs for all Sony PSPs, lovely "H" manga, doujinshi (including futanari), and a lot more. See all the new items on the site now -- see them all here.

Remember that J-List has extended our free shipping sale of CD-ROM dating-sim games through the end of January, which gives you a great excuse to order a bishoujo game or six and save a bundle. Our interactive dating-sims are a fantastic genre of entertainment from Japan, and we have interesting games for PCs for all tastes and interests. Why not browse our PC dating-sim games and find some you'd like to play?