Friday, February 10, 2006

This year's Meat Day celebration in Japan, my lust for American cell phones, and the meaning of "recycle" in Japan

The Japanese often play with numbers in interesting ways, converting the numerals into sounds to make messages. Through a phonetic system I still don't understand completely, the number 084 can be read ohayo (good morning), 39 can be san kyu (which sounds like the English word "thank you"), and 4649 can be yoroshiku (pleased to meet you). Yesterday was February 9th, and since the numbers 2 and 9 can be read niku (which means "meat" in Japanese), butcher shops across Japan have decided to label the day as Meat Day, a special day to celebrate meat in all its many forms. February 9th is also my wife's birthday, and rather than getting the big plate o' sushi that we usually get on birthdays, we decided to head out for some yakiniku, a fun category of restaurant in which everyone sits around a grill built into your table and cooks meat and vegetables over a flame. Yakiniku (which just means "cooked meat") is a traditional Korean barbecue meal, slightly customized to Japanese tastes of course, and in addition to various kind of beef, chicken and vegetables, you can order kimchee and various Korean favorites. As with other Japanese dishes like sukiyaki or chanko-nabe (both basically pots of food you cook in the middle of a table, with everyone taking what they want to eat out), eating your dinner as a family together is one of the most enjoyable aspects of yakiniku.

Well, the unthinkable has happened: I'm starting to feel envious of cell phone users in the U.S. Oh, Japan still leads the design wars when it comes to making thin, stylish phones with cool 3G features like high-speed Internet, GPS, 3.2 megapixel cameras and even a phone with a 4 GB hard drive for listening to tunes. However, more and more I find myself looking at those cool Treo-type smart phones with those little keyboards and wish they sold things like that here. Part of the problem is that it's quite easy to enter Japanese text with a phone, since it's all syllable based -- entering arigatou (ありがとう) takes just five characters, which you enter by hitting the number keys (the 1 moves you through the A-I-U-E-O line, the 2 key is the KA-KI-KU-KE-KO line, and so on). Japanese who are used to keypad text entry can go very fast, and knowing Japan, somebody will have come up with a standardized test for fast and accurate typing using this method. Entering English text on a keypad is hell, though, and it takes several minutes just to peck out a simple sentence. Since there's little demand for phones with Blackberry-like features here, there isn't a single such device on the market in Japan, meaning that if I want get some email done out of the office, I have to bring my whole Powerbook with me.

One category of business that really took off over the past decade is the "recycle shop," Japanese parlance for a shop that buys stuff that people don't need anymore, cleans it up, and sells it for a profit. Today, everything from rice cookers to washing machines to skis to console games are bought and sold in Japan's new retail underground. The most successful of these stores is BookOff, a chain of used book stores that has hundreds locations in Japan. His shops include spin-off brands such as ToyOff (they sell "almost new" children's toys), PetOff (used stuff for your pet), and the very oddly named HardOff (used computer hardware and electronics). The other day I was eating Indian curry and noticed a store across the street called Golf Partner, a similar chain that took the "recycling" approach to selling golf clubs, allowing golf fans to buy used clubs cheaply. They seem to be doing well -- they have a national network of stores and promise to be able to search for any type of club from any manufacturer.

Among the many unique products J-List brings you are Comic AG, a super magazine of English-translated "H manga" that comes out about every two weeks. Each issue overflows with 80 pages of manga from top Japanese artists like Tohru Nishimaki, Fujio Okamoto and Yumisuke Kotoyoshi. While we have a huge selection of back issues, we're running low on some of the past issues like vol. 8-12, and when they're gone they won't be available again. Why not browse our selection of Comic AG issues, or go for a regular subscription?

Explore a new side of Japan with the unique PC dating-sim games that J-List sells, a great blend of story, characters and "H" done as only the Japanese could. With game concepts ranging from the hilarious (X-Change series) to the dramatic (Kana My Sister, who is dying of a terrible disease) to explorations of various interests like maid cosplay (I would have to recommend Little My Maid, a favorite of mine). Since the games all have multiple endings you can play agan and again and get a new ending each time, as you try to find all the endings and graphics in each game. Browse our incredible line-up of our "H" games now!

Monday, February 06, 2006

History and our "national personality," famous Japanese of the world stage, and putting dogs to sleep in Japan

History is in all of us, and each nation has its own unique quirks or features that come about as a result of its own past. For the Japanese, the arrival of Perry's black ships in 1853 brought them face-to-face with the fact that Japan couldn't stand against nations like the United States and Great Britain. After the "respect the Emperor and expel the foreign barbarians" revolution that ejected the last Tokugawa Shogun in favor of a government formed around the Emperor (which "restored" the Emperor to power, hence the term Meiji Restoration), the country underwent an unprecedented crash program of modernization, retiring the old system of feudal domains (han) for a modern prefectural system based on that of France and introducing education to the people. One of the forces driving this was Japan's desire to be seen in a positive light by foreigners from the powerful countries of the West, and today, the Japanese are still very concerned about how they appear to gaijin (usually translated as "foreigner," although a more accurate translation of the term would be "outsider"). Many large-scale public works, such as the first Shinkansen line, seem to be created to coincide with international events like the Olympics, when foreigners would visit Japan in large numbers and "oo and ah" over their technical achievements. It's like Japan is still trying to prove to the West that they've left the backwards feudal nation they were 150 years ago behind.

This tendency to be concerned with the opinions of the International Community manifests itself in many interesting ways. For one thing, the Japanese love nothing more than to have one of their own number recognized internationally. From writers like Kawabata and Mishima to directors like Kurosawa and Miyazaki and the many Japanese athletes who have made names for themselves abroad, the Japanese are always tickled when a local boy makes good. One of the most respected Japanese today is Etsuro Soto, one of two main sculptors working on the Sagrada Famila cathedral in Barcelona, Spain, which gives people here enormous pride. Another Japanese active on the world stage is Ken Okuyama, one of the main designers at Ferrari and the lead force behind the Enzo, who has won design awards for his creations, to the great happiness of Japanese.

Every country is different, and I bump into these little differences just about every day in Japan. Our family dog Chibi passed away last week, but a few months before I remember having a discussion about him with my wife's family. Although he was old, Chibi was still quite genki (a word that can mean many things, from "I'm fine" to "cheerful" to "energetic," but in this case "healthy"). But if Chibi were to really get sick, so that he were in pain, I asked, would we have him put to sleep? The room suddenly got very quiet -- apparently this is one of those topics you just don't bring up in Japan, much like estate planning for people before they die or how a person who's last name means "the rice field by the mountain" can actually believe his ancestors were samurai. Chibi is happy to be alive, I was told, and we would never think of interfering with the number of his days by ending them early. In this, I sensed an incredible respect for life, although the issue of euthanasia for a beloved pet in pain is certainly a difficult question.

More random pics from my Flickr account. These are the buttons that call waitresses to your table in restaurants. WHY??? do they not have this in the U.S.?

Hanging out in a bookstore. The latest Mazda fun book.

Beat Takeshi, who is really quite famous (it must be all those fans of Johnny Mnemonic), has a new book out

The #1 busybody in Japan, this is (sort of) fortune-teller Kazuko Hosoki, who is on TV five nights a week.

Cool clothes from a "frea market."