Friday, January 20, 2006

Gramatical challenges in learning Japanese, a Lone Wolf in Japan, and how Kit Kat brings hope to millions

Some languages are similar to each other, such as the Romance Languages that share features like genders for nouns, or English and French, which intermingled in the years after the Norman Conquest. Other languages are quite different, with linguistic features that can be difficult for learners to wrap their brains around at first. While I believe that no language is intrinsically "harder" than all the others -- each language is unique with its own features -- there are some aspects of Japanese grammar that were quite alien for a native English speaker like me.

One of the biggest challenges for learners of Japanese is dealing with what isn't stated in a sentence. My sister, who is fluent in German and lives near Luxembourg, once told me that the purpose of German grammar was to get the subject and the verb as far from each other as possible (to confuse people trying to learn the language, I guess). In Japanese, the goal seems to be removing as much information from a sentence as you can, and one of the first things a student learns is that the formal sentences in the textbook like Watashi wa anata ni tegami wo kakimasu (私はあなたに手紙を書きます, "I will write you a letter") are nearly always reduced to almost nothing by Japanese speakers (Tegami kaku ne, 手紙書くね), since everything else can be implied. There are other linguistic concepts that take some getting used to, too. One are "giving" words like ageru and yaru, which mean "to give" and are for use with people above your level (your boss, your senpai) and below your level (a child, a dog), respectively. When connected with other verbs, the recipient of an action can be inferred without it being openly stated. There are two versions of the verb "to be (in a place)" depending on whether the subject is animate (a person or animal) or inanimate (a car, a mountain), which can throw gaijin learners a curve from time to time. Finally, while we have "here" and "there" in Japanese, there are three in Japan -- "here" (koko) "there" (soko) and "way over there" (asoko), and the interplay of these concepts and how they shift when speaking can take some getting used to.

When a gaijin comes to Japan, it's common for certain words or kanji characters to insinuate themselves into his mind as kakko ii (which means "cool"). One word I distinctly remember liking was ippiki okami (ee-PEE-KEE OH-kah-mee, 一匹狼), which means "lone wolf" and describes people who are very individual-minded, happy to do things outside of a larger group. People who are ippiki okami live life without worrying about what others think, something the Japanese describe with the English words "going my way." Now we've got a cool new T-shirt, featuring the ultimate Lone Wolf ever, Golgo 13. See it on the site now!

At J-List, we go out of our way to find items you can't find anywhere else, and one of our favorite products are the Japan-only flavors of Nestle Kit Kat, which is the "real" Kit Kat since the stuff sold in the U.S. is made by Hershey's under license. Kit Kat has become a hugely successful product in Japan in part because its name sounds like kitto katsu ("you shall surely be victorious"), and parents buy it for their kids to show their support while they prepare for the all-important college entrance exams, which is going on right now. To help Japan's thousands of entrance-exam students, Nestle has brought out new Sakura Kit Kat, a delicious cherry flavored treat with breathtaking images of cherry blossoms on the box. The new Kit Kat TV commercial shows a worried girl about to start her college entrance exam, who is touched when she discoveres a box of Kit Kat her mother had slipped into her bag. The tag line is "Don't worry, the cherry blossoms will bloom for you." See the commercial here (Windows Media required). We also have a cool "sampler set" of all new varieties of Kit Kat for the 2005/2006 season for you.

In addition to our amazing lineup of English-translated dating-sim games, J-List also brings you amazing collections of doujin CG collections. Many of Japan's doujinshi artists create comic-book style books, while others turn to Photoshop instead, making beautiful computer-based CG art. We've licenced several of these CG works directly from the artists, so we can bring you great works in their original, mosaic-free form. Look for convenient sets of these cool CG collections, at special prices!

Now back to more pictures from the AVN show. This is some girl riding on a vibration machine. It was quite a thing to watch.

Normally you only get to take pictures like this in Japan.

The famous Ron Jeremy.

I didn't expect to see a Dorothy dress at the show. I thought that was a Japanese thing.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Japanese Buddhist attitudes about land, and ruminations on when I first arrived in Japan

One big difference between Japan and America is the attitude people have towards land and personal mobility. In the U.S. it's quite common for a person to move several times over the course of his life, to go to a region where jobs are better, move into a larger house as he moves up the ladder of life, or just make a new start in a new part of the country. Since houses are bought and sold regularly, it's common for people with similar income levels to accumulate near each other, a mechanism that's at work in every American community to some extent. The Japanese, however, are more likely to stay in the same place for their entire lives. The reason, it turns out, is related to Japan's Buddhist culture: since families generally have an established ohaka (grave) where all family members will eventually be interred, the idea of permanently leaving that area is almost unthinkable -- at the very least, when you died you'd be far from loved ones who wouldn't come to visit your grave very often. Because of this desire to stay on the same land forever, differences in wealth naturally develop, and it's not uncommon to see beautiful, newly constructed homes located next to shabby old buildings built decades ago.

A gaijin's first visit to Japan is a giddy time, and I remember my first days here very well. I woke up at the crack of dawn -- jet lag will do that to you when going from East to West -- and went out for a walk to see what I could see. After greeting an elderly woman, I bought some UCC canned coffee from a vending machine (which bowed to me, via a small screen), and marveled at a sign letting me know I was entering the village of Fujimi, which means "View of Fuji." In the old days, supposedly, you could see Mt. Fuji from that village when the conditions were right, despite the fact that Fuji-san is 150 km to the south of us. I distinctly remember being amazed at the design of everyday objects here, such as the toilets with hand faucets on top (allowing you to wash your hands with the clean water that flows into the tank after you flush), or with the little slit in butter containers that allows you to keep a butter knife inside but still get the lid on. I was unlike most foreigners in Japan because I'd studied the language for four years at SDSU before coming here, so I could basically get around town and talk to people (and put my foot in my mouth really, really well). Still, I remember being extremely frustrated at not knowing vocabulary words for the things I wanted to say, so I attacked the language ravenously, reading manga and studying until I could express myself the way I wanted.

Our big news today is that Enzai - Falsely Accused, the very first yaoi game to be released in English, is in stock and shipping now. For years we've been attending anime conventions and yaoi fans have been begging us to bring out BL games in English. Their passion won us over, and now we have the first PC dating-sim for yaoi fans in stock and ready for immediate order. The game is great, too, an innovative story based in Napoleonic France in which you assume the role of Guys, a youth accused of a murder he didn't commit. In prison for life, he must accumulate various forms of evidence to clear his name, aided and hindered by the various characters in the game. If you like Japan's unique yaoi themes, we hope you'll support us and get the game!

Since J-List is physically based in Japan, we're able to bring you amazing toys and other items unavailable anywhere else. One of the most popular products we've ever sold were the Furuta Star Trek ship collection, incredibly detailed ships from the Star Trek series made for the Japanese market. We're happy to report the newest Furuta Trek series is in stock: Star Trek Federation & Alien Ships Collection Beta (meaning set 2; Alpha was set 1). The series features the original refit Enterprise from Star Trek: the Motion Picture, the U.S.S. Pasteur and Rio Grande, a Kazon Raider, and the long-awaited Borg Cube. We usually buy these toys by the truckload, but this time we were only able to get our hands on a few cartons, so we recommend serious Trek fans to snap these up ASAP. We also have the Alpha series in stock.

Congratulations to our own Jun, the guy who handles all J-List snacks, gum and traditional products, whose baby girl was born yesterday. Little Renka was 3144 grams. Mother and daughter are doing fine.

Time to buy the omikuji, the little paper that tells your fortune for the coming year. This one is pretty cool -- you get a little gold talisman to keep with you, all for just 100 yen.

I got the little rake, which supposedly means I'll do well in business this year.

My wife's omikuji. I distinctly remember these things being hellishly hard to read before, with very hard kanji, but the ones they had this year were easy to read, with furigana (the little hiragana they write next to kanji to show you how to read them). Nice of them to think of poor gaijin like that.

When you're done with the fortune paper, you tie it to this tree.

Next we selected our daruma for the new year. They had pink and green ones but that was kind of too newfangled for us.

Although my wife is not from the Osaka area, she loves takoyaki, which are little balls of batter with a bit of octopus meat inside. We got some to take home with us.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The concept of honesty in Japan, our New Year's Day prayer, and winter snow report

I've always believed that people will be what you expect them to be, and if you assume that people are honest, they generally won't let you down. This principle seems to be at work in Japan, a country that certainly has more than its share of honest, upstanding people. One of my first experiences in culture shock here was going to my local Seven Eleven and seeing a brand-new car in the parking lot with the key in the ignition, idling away while their owner ran in to pick up some milk or eggs. I can't say that I've seen too many cars sitting unlocked with the engines running in the U.S., but here no one thinks much about it here, since no one would be so rude as to actually steal your car. An American friend of mine recently went to test-drive a new car, and the dealer handed him the key without even getting a copy of his license, which surprised him too -- the dealer just forked over the key and told him to have fun with the test-drive. Another friend managed to lose his wallet no less than four times in different parts of the country, once as far away as Kyoto, and all four times the wallets were delivered to the police with cash intact. There is crime in Japan, to be sure, and bad people here just like everywhere else, but by and large I've been happy with the honesty I've encountered during my time here.

Yesterday was New Year's Day for us, as we did our Hatsu-moude (ha-tsu MOH-day) or first prayer of the New Year, which is usually done on Jan. 1st. We pulled out all the stops, visiting our local Shinto Shrine to throw money in the offering box, then made our wishes for health and happiness in 2006. We got our omikuji, a kind of extended fortune cookie without the cookie, that gives advice about the coming year and what you should be cautious of. Finally, we bought a new Daruma for our house, a New Year's custom. Our not-quite-New Year's Day continued, as we went to visit my wife's uncle, the one who fought in World War II and would have gone off to die with the Yamato if his ship hadn't developed a convenient mechanical problem at the last minute (he's got a killer scar on his face from a piece of shrapnel from an American bomb). At his house, we played a traditional card game called Karuta, in which players must listen to segments of Japanese history and find the the same text in cards laid out on the table, a fun way to teach kids history they wouldn't otherwise be able to learn.

It's been a rough winter in Japan so far, with parts of the country receiving record snowfall, even places along the Sea of Japan that are used to a lot every year. The problem has been so bad that huge amounts of snow piling up on older houses have been causing them to collapse, killing the usually-elderly inhabitants -- a staggering 90 people have died since the heavy snows began. Warm weather after the heavy snowfall has added to fear of avalanches in parts of the country, and in some places the Self-Defence Forces have been dispatched to help people deal with the snow.

We have some good news for fans of Yulia Nova, the lovely Russian goddess whose DVDs J-List carries exclusively: we've gotten her newest DVD titles in stock for you today! The three new Yulia DVDs feature all-new footage shot over the past year, and let you enjoy Yulia's beauty and Moscow in the Spring, Summer and Winter.

We're declaring war on our remaining stock of 2006 calendars, slashing the prices on almost everything while we close it all out. We've still got an amazing selection of traditional calendars (Famous Castles of Japan, soba noodles), anime calendars (Tsubasa Chronicle, Pokemon, more), JPOP (Morning Musume, BoA), lovely bikini idols (Yu Yamada, Nana Katase), Japanese pro wrestler calendars, classic Japanese cars, and more. Once these calendars are gone they'll be gone for good, never to come back again. Why not browse our calendar selection and find something special to hang up in your home, office, dorm or wherever. The large poster-sized calendars J-List sells are printed exclusively for the Japanese domestic market and aren't available outside of Japan.

We interrupt the adult video show for...Peter's Hatsu-Moude trip. This is our family's Shinto Shrine, which has a huge tunnel of torii arches for you to pass through.

My son Kazuki.

The actual praying. There's something about times when you clap three times before praying (to get the God's attention) and other times when you don't. This was a "don't clap" time.

This is "Red Fox" (Akai Kitsune, no relation to Samson & Son) that means...something. At this shrine, you put abura-age or fried tofu as an offering. This is somehow related to a popular udon-in-a-bowl you can buy, Akai Kitsune, which has fried tofu inside.

We also bought our omamori for the year, which must be replaced on an annual basis. We bought kotsu anzen (traffic safety) charms for the kids, a health one for me, and a "success in business" one for our company.