Friday, March 03, 2006

Trends in rural Japan, fun places to drink in Japan, and Japanese group photo psychology

Yesterday J-List's Tomo and Jun were residents of separate towns, called Omama and Nitta, but today they're neighbors in the newly created city of Midori, which means green in Japanese. One of the biggest trends in rural Japan is gappei (gah-PEI), meaning consolidation, as smaller regions join together to incorporate as cities. In Japan's system of land organization, cities (shi, 市) are regions that have 50,000 or more people, whereas towns (machi or cho、町) and villages (mura or son、村) have smaller populations. Japan's rural areas are being hit by the triple whammy of extremely low birth rate, lack of immigration and young people moving to urban areas, which is causing parts of the country to empty out at an alarming rate. As Japan's population peaks this year, some rural areas are trying to redefine themselves to maintain their attractiveness to their citizens. It's also quite common for rural areas to reward people who move there, paying a bounty of $10,000 for building a house, for example, or a monthly stipend if you have three or more kids. At current projections, the population of Japan in the year 3000 is going to be....only 27 people.

Whenever you study Japan's society you inevitably encounter concepts of uchi (in-group) and soto (out-group). Groups are very important in Japan, and care is taken to avoid making any member feel that he's not a full-fledged member, be it a class in high school or a group of friends at Tokyo Disneyland. I've learned a lot about Japan's group psychology by watching them doing a very common thing: taking photographs. When a group of Japanese takes a photo together, you can often observe one person in the group taking a picture of everyone else, afterwhich another member will take the camera from him and take another picture, with the first person included this time. The idea is that if it's a group photo, everyone needs to be included, and excluding someone from the group will be unfair to that person. Walking away without taking a second picture might make the unincluded individual feel like he was nakama-hazure (na-KOO-ma ha-ZOO-ray), or an exile from the group. Likewise, if that person said he didn't want to be in the second picture it might cause bad feelings in the other members, so the second picture is usually taken. This system saves hurt feelings, although it wasted a lot of film back in the old Kodak/Fuji Film days.

Drinking establishments vary from country to country, and Japan is no different. The English word "bar" is used to describe a Western-style bar where you can find Guiness or a shot of Suntory Hibiki. A pub, on the other hand, often means a drinking establishment where there's a hostess of some kind, basically a pretty women who make chatter with you as she encourages you to drink more. A Japanese business associate of mine once took me to a "cabaret club," a very expensive place where your bourbon will be mixed by a beautiful girl as she makes cute small talk -- in my case it was a lot of nihongo ga jozu" or your Japanese is very good," which gets tedious after a while. Out here in the inaka (the boondocks) there's a kind of bar called a "snack" (short for "snack bar" since they serve food), where you can drink, eat and sing karaoke. But my favorite kind of Japanese drinking establishment would have to be the izakaya (ee-ZA-KA-YA), translatable as "a place to drink saké and just be." It's basically a cozy Japanese-style restaurant/bar that serves cold beer in frosty mugs, with lots of good things to eat, from sushi and sashimi to edamame (soybeans you can just pop in your mouth) and more. We happen to have a cool set of toys from Re-Ment featuring all the amazing food, drink and other items you can get at an izakaya -- see how many items you can identify! Full sets or random boxes are in stock.

We've got two products for fans of our original Japanese T-shirts: a new hoodie in cool Army Green Fatigue color, and a fitted girls version of our Ecchi parody rhinoceros shirt in earthy Olive Green. Our Japan-related T-shirts will make you look great, and since they're "coded" with secret words like the word "ecchi" or with kanji messages, most people won't know what they say. Browse our T-shirt and hoodie selection now!

Monday, February 27, 2006

Signs of spring and "Haru Ichiban," different rules of economics in Japan, and surprising information on naughty words in Japanese

More signs of spring all around us in Japan, with warmer weather and lots of windy days, which are known as Haru Ichiban (the First of Spring). It's nice to see that winter is drawing to an end, but for people with allergies this in-between-seasons period can be a difficult one, as the extra-strong winds whip up lots of pollen and dust. Haru Ichiban marks the beginning of the "pollen mask season" when a large number of people will be seen walking around with SARS-style masks on their faces, trying to keep some of the allergens out.

Japan is a very different place from the rest of the world, and it operates under its own rules, even when it comes to good old Adam Smith. First of all, inflation doesn't seem to exist here, and except for a few core things like gasoline, prices don't move much at all. In fact, I've noticed very few things getting significantly more expensive over the past 15 years -- I think JR raised rail prices once, making the price of a train to Tokyo go from $16 to $18. The last decade has been mostly recession for Japan, as the country slept off the hangover from the bursting of the Tokyo land bubble in the early 1990s, and during that time the government has pursued a zero interest rate policy, effectively lowering the cost of money to banks to nothing in an effort to stimulate the economy. The result is that loans can be had in Japan for 1-2%, and sometimes for even less. I was walking by a bank the other day and noticed an advertisement for 0.78%, fixed at that level for three years (then presumably going to something like 4-5%). Of course, putting your money in the bank will generally net you a laughably low return of around 0.05%, so it's all relative, I guess. Japan may be an island nation, but it's not completely closed off, and many investors here take advantage of certificates of deposit, bond issues and other investments available outside Japan, usually offered through proxy companies.

When you learn a foreign language, the first thing you usually learn are the "naughty" words. However, people studying Japanese are often surprised to find that most of the bad words they're used to in English don't really exist. Popular Japanese insults include baka (BAH-kah, stupid), aho (ah-HO, this is the Osaka-ben version of baka) or shine (shi-NEH, meaning "go die"), and the "s-word" does exist (kuso), but it's hard to consider it a really bad word when it's used freely in anime watched by small children. It's funny how living in a society that doesn't use English changes one's perception of the what a "bad" word even is. For example, my kids are aware of all the bad words that exist in English ("those words that Dad says when he gets really mad"), but the words are all meaningless here in Japan, since using them doesn't cause a reaction out of the people around you. Language only has function when interfacing with others.

Remember that J-List makes it easy to enjoy DVDs from anywhere in the world, with our line of region free DVD players at great prices. Whether you want to watch the high-end indies or anime DVDs from Japan, or enjoy PAL DVDs from Europe, Australia or South America, the three region free DVD players we've got are all excellent choices for you. The players also play just about anything you can throw at them -- VCD, DVD-R/RW/R+, even MP3s burned onto CD-R or DVD-R. But best of all, they're incredibly affordable, starting at just $68 for the Karaoke-enabled DVD-7880K, $109 for the full-featured DVD-7050, and just $148 for the take-anywhere M-280, which has a 7-inch wide screen and battery. All players are shipped out of San Diego for your convenience and are fully warranted.

A trip to the Docomo shop. I've been yearning for an American-style smart phone, but no such thing exists here. Still, I thought it would be fun to see what Docomo had.

Lots of pretty phones. The main cell phone companies are NTT Docomo (very expensive, very stylish), AU (more affordable, also stylish, good 3G), Vodafone (so lame I read an article in the New York Times about how they were losing market share fast), and Tu-Ka (known for their PCS network). All phones are unique to each company though, so you have to shop carefully when buying or you'll miss a good phone.

This was the closest thing I saw to a smart phone, but it has no QWERTY keyboard. Plus, knowing NTT it will be a totally closed OS system, which I am not interested in.

'Course, the real reason to go into an NTT Docomo shop is to check out Chiaki Kuriyama's latest pictures. Chiaki in boxing gloves? Are they serious? The only thing cooler about this girl is that she's a shoushin shoumei (genuine, true) otaku, and I caught her on a talk show geeking out about how cool her Rei Ayanami figure with bandages was.