Friday, March 10, 2006

Good and bad foods from Japan, three Japanese words for you, and lack of "DIY Culture" in Japan

My diet has certainly changed since I came to Japan back in 1991. Like some Americans I wasn't too keen on fish back then, but in the last decade and a half I've really come to appreciate all manner of things from the sea. In addition to many broiled fish I know the names of in Japanese but not in English, I love all types of sushi and sashimi. Other dishes I dig on are donburi ("big bowl of rice") items like Oyakodon ("parent and child bowl" with chicken and egg cooked together over rice) or Tekkadon (slices of maguro on rice with soy sauce mixed with wasabi poured on); gyoza (Chinese dumplings, known as Pot Stickers in the U.S.); and udon and soba noodles. There are plenty of Japanese foods that I can do without, of course, including the infamous natto (fermented soybeans), shirasu (little tiny white fish with big black eyes, my wife loves them), nankotsu (a variety of chicken-on-a-stick made with chicken cartilage), ikizukuri (raw fish that's prepared while it's still alive), and cho (fried up beef intestines, popular in Kyushu). Lately I've been eating a lot of saki ika, which is basically dried, shredded squid you eat like beef jerky. It goes great with beer, and is very low in fat and calories. Maybe there's a squid jerky boom in America's future? (We have some cool cookbooks and saki ika on the site if you're interested.)

I'll teach you three words of Japanese that are fun to know, and which pop up in anime or our PC dating-sim games rather often. First is yappari (やっぱり, ya- PAH-ree, with a small pause where the double consonant is), a word that can be translated as "just as I thought" "as I suspected" or "now that I think about it." If you were to discover that a suspicion you had about someone was true, you'd shout out Yappari! Next is osana najimi (幼なじみ) or childhood friend, a close friend you've played with since before you can remember. In anime it's common for there to be a girl who grew up with the main character, who knows everything about him and who sometimes beats him to a pulp for comic relief. Third is the famous Japanese word gambaru (頑張る), which can be translated as "to work hard" or "try one's best." Japan has a country has great respect for hard work, and they gambaru to pass their college entrance exams, gambaru for the success of their companies -- cute girls will even gambaru to win the hearts of the boys they like. It often appears as a request, gambatte kudasai (gahm-BAT-tay koo-da-sai-ee, "please do your best") or as a command, gambare! (gahm-BAH-ray, "give it your all!").

Each country is different, and the way people buy goods in each country is different, too. One thing I've noticed is a lack of "DIY culture" in Japan, a tendency to take the comfortable route and rely on the services of established companies rather than doing things for yourself. If you're a college student needing an apartment in the U.S., there are probably a lot of places where you can go and read ads for people looking for tenants -- just call them up and make the arrangements. In Japan, though, you'd usually go through a real estate agent or other company who will take one month's rent as a fee. Want to sell a car? In most cities there are areas where people park their cars along the street with a price and a phone number posted, but when Yasu saw this in Philadelphia he experienced culture shock, since you always sell your old car to a professional dealer in Japan.

We've got two big announcements on the J-Snack front today, our first being a welcome one to Japan Kit Kat fans: the availability of the new Green Tea Kit Kat for 2006! This year's Green Tea Kit Kat is better than ever, with a delicious mild taste made with real Uji Matcha, grown near Kyoto. We've got limited stock of what was our single most popular snack item last year, a deluxe package containing 17 individually wrapped Kit Kat bars. We weren't able to get as many of these Kit Kat packages as we wanted to this year and are worried that we might sell out, so if you're a fan of Kit Kat, order yours now!

Then, by massive customer request, we've got another cool item for you: the Final Fantasy XII "Potion" Premium Bottle from Suntory, which are health drinks containing royal jelly, vitamins, herbs and caffeine, made into the shape of health potions. It's really a great concept: you get a one of six beautifully designed large bottles of hit point-healing health potion in a special box, great for displaying or drinking when out doing battle. Each box also has a cool foil-wrapped card, too. Please hurry though, as they are probably not going to last the weekend. If we do sell out, we'll be taking backorders and filling them on a first-come, first-serve basis as we try to get more stock.

Looking for something really unique to wear? J-List has dozens of our original "wacky Japanese T-shirts" featuring unique designs and funny messages, from the bizarre ("Looking for a Japanese Girlfriend") to the aesthetically beautiful. All shirts are full U.S. sizes, printed with loving care by our staff in San Diego. We've updated the photos of our T-shirts with larger images that hopefully make it easier for you to choose which designs might be right for you. Why not browse our wacky T-shirt page today?

Try living in a country with no real peanut butter and no guacamole chips. You'll beg to buy it when you find some. Note: I didn't eat them together.

Picture of a Really Big PC at Yamada Denki. This is like a 32 inch monitor with TV function. It was not actually terrible as far as these things go, but it was being closed out so I guess it didn't take off with customers.

DS Lite is making such a splash right now. I've got one on order for my wife, since she wants to try one out.

A boat of sashimi. This is the best thing in the world. Good with lots of wasabi.

Image of the pathetically small cereal aisle in a Japanese supermarket, not really something you could call an aisle at all. Special K has been on sale here for a few months, but it's just not the same thing as the real stuff back home.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Being a Champion of Justice, thoughts on "Image English" in advertising, and the perfect gifts for White Day

I remain convinced that the foreigners who live in Japan furnish an important service to the country, by providing a voice of criticism and pointing out things that need to be changed. Time and time again I've noticed the power the opinions of gaijin have to effect change in Japan, whether it's asking to have a non-smoking section added to a restaurant or pointing out that the restroom was not as clean as it could be (things Japanese would say "it can't be helped" about). Just today, while going to lunch, we spotted a young woman driving with her 4-year-old daughter who was standing up in the front seat. The idea of child carseats are still somewhat alien to Japan, a country that only passed its first carseat law in 1999, and children playing inside moving cars is something I've seen all to often. When we stopped at a light I went into seigi no mikata ("champion of justice") mode, got out of the car, and publicly reprimanded the mother, telling to put her damn child in a seat belt, at the very least. She immediately complied, embarrassed at being lectured while people in the surrounding cars looked on. Because it was an American doing the admonishing rather than a Japanese person, I'm sure that it's an event she won't soon forget, and hopefully she'll change her ways.

"You know you've been in Japan too long when you are jealous of your friend because the camera strap that came with his new Minolta camera says 'With you for the best scenes of your life' and yours doesn't." Japanese people do have a special relationship with the English language, since nearly all of them study six years, or up to ten years if they go to college. While most don't become fluent in the language, the fact that people are familiar with it is not lost on companies, who have gotten quite good at creating poetic "Image English" for their products. Just as the creators of the Swatch brand came up with that name because they didn't realize it sounded kind of silly in English, Japanese creators of English slogans can be quite creative, and the slogans can make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Some examples of Image English I like are:

For Beautiful Human Life (make-up company Iona)
A happy present from the earth (printed on stationery)
Fashionable Picture Magazine (on magazine masthead)
Urban Contemporary Wave (slogan of hair gel maker Mandom)
Inspire the Next! (slogan of Hitachi)
Drive Your Dreams (Toyota)
Feel Wood (Sumitomo Forestry)
For Precious Life (toilet maker Inax)
Young and Clean (political slogan for the LDP some years ago)
White Day Apple iPod

Are you ready for White Day, on March 14th? This is the day when men who received a gift of chocolate on Valentine's Day give some sort of return gift -- okaeshi in Japanese -- to the wives, girlfriends, daughters and female co-workers who gave them something. It's pure marketing fluff, of course, but kind of fun, and companies are happy to take advantage of the event by thinking of ways to sell products. Even Apple gets into the spirit of White Day their Japan store page, by suggesting that men buy engraved iPods for their better halves as a way of saying "Thanks for the chocolate!"

One of the most popular new products to come along recently has been Unazukin (oo-NA-zu-keen), a line of stylish electronic toys that look like a cross between Russian nesting dolls, Weebles and Easter Eggs. These electronic toys interact with you, by nodding (unazuku in Japanese, where the toys get their name from) or shaking their heads from side to side when you talk to them. Bandai has a great new idea for the toy line: Unazukin Gift For You, made specially for giving as gifts, with messages printed right on the toys and a place for you to write a personal note on the box. Today we've got Happy Birthday, Anniversary, and Thank You in stock (the last one might be good for White Day...?). Since they're quite inexpensive, why not buy several to keep in your desk at work for when you need a gift on short notice?

To be a foreigner in Japan is to be at peace with standing out in a crowd, since more often than not you're going to be the only non-Japanese around. Sometimes the best way to manage this is to embrace your differences openly, and show off your uniqueness for all to see. In this spirit, we used our wacky shirt-making minds to create Kiss Me, I'm Gaijin, a really cool design that that shows a stereotypical foreigner holding a cup of coffee, with a message that makes use of the blocky, uniquely Japanese style of the katakana writing system. A great potential conversation starter with cute Japanese exchange students on campus!

I snapped some pictures of the chick in the car before I got out and told her what for. She was very pretty, and appeared to spend a lot of time on her face and make-up. Doesn't she know that the Japanese are dying as a race, and each and every one of them is important? Jeez, stupid mothers...

Over the weekend we took a "Sayonara Bongo Friendee" trip to Numata, our favorite onsen spot. The car's sha-ken is up in a week or so so we have to give the car back to Mazda while we wait for our MPV to be delivered.

Although predictably we seldom opened the top (mainly because the kids would eat up there and spill food), we sure enjoyed this car. If you're in the U.K. and like the looks of this car, maybe you can find one for sale. I'd think they'd be popular in Australia/New Zealand, too.

Japanese city in respoe.

I'm surprised to say I've actually been using my iPod with Video to watch videos. I'm up to episode 13 in Mai Hime. I walk carefully holding the iPod and watching my vids. It works surprisingly well.

Monday, March 06, 2006

A new electronics law in Japan, fun with hi-tech toilets, and some words to live by

Japan is declaring war on used electronics with the upcoming "PSE law" that will take effect next month. Basically, it's a requirement that electronic devices such as televisions, computers or stereos have a special "safety sticker" on it, and since no products sold before 2002 have the sticker, their sale would presumably be illegal. It's a problem for stores that sell vintage video game systems, musical instruments and amplifiers, and other kinds of older electronic devices. Many older Japanese housewives prefer the old 2-tub washing machines to today's newfangled automatics -- you have one tub for washing/soaking and another for rinsing, which some say gets clothes cleaner. Since they're not made anymore, those who prefer the old way have to buy used, which would be hard to do under the new law. Happily, there seem to be quite a few loopholes, for example retailers may perform some inspections themselves, so maybe the effect of the new law won't be that big.

Japan is nothing if not technologically advanced, and living here is a lot of fun if you like gadgets. From phones with eye-poppingly advanced features to those dreamy chairs that massage away your daily stress, a trip to an electronics store in Japan is never boring. When I first came to Japan I was fascinated by those toilets that wash and dry your butt for you, which Japanese toilet maker Toto has named the washlet. In addition to providing a warm seat to sit on, so welcome on cold winter nights, the unit sends a stream of warm water to clean your nether regions, with options like a bidet (for ladies, although being a guy I'm rather fuzzy on all the bidet stuff), a water massage feature, and an air dryer for paperless operation. These washlet units are extremely popular here, with 60% of Japanese homes owning them -- the fact that they help constipated people get through their business is probably a major selling point, as all Japanese women seem to suffer from this problem. They're starting to appear in the U.S., too, although I don't imagine most homes come with convenient electric plugs installed behind their toilets as they do in Japan.

The Japanese spend a lot of time worrying about the welfare and education of their children, perhaps because there are so few of them being born. If you drive around our city you can see these metal signs put up by the local PTA, with thoughtful slogans like "those who don't show respect their parents won't receive it from their children" and "think of ways to make your household a bright and cheerful place for your child to come home to after school." I heard of a new slogan that adults teach to kids to protect them from some of the more unsavory elements of society: ika no osushi (ee-KA no oh-SOO-she, meaning squid sushi). The word breaks down into the following parts: ikanai ("don't go" e.g. don't go anywhere with a stranger), noranai ("don't ride," e.g. don't get into a stranger's car), okii koe wo dasu (yell for help if you need it), and sugu ni shiraseru (tell a grown-up right away if you have a problem). This feel-good Japanese message has been brought to you by the Sunday night "anime golden time" of Chibi Maruko-chan and Sazae-san, which are part of the end-of-weekend ritual at our house.

My wife is a collector of Licca-chan, the cute fashion doll made by Takara that's been sold in Japan since 1967. This is a rare item, a Hina doll set made using Licca as a base.

This was a limited edition item, with just 200 made in the whole country. My wife really wanted the version with Licca sitting down, but had to settle for this one instead.

Licca is half Japanese, half French, which is kind of the risou (ideal) for Japanese doll fantasy building. She's the daughter of a Japanese fashion designer and a French musician, about as cool as you can get.

My wife kept insisting that Licca's boyfriend was named Ken, then she remembered his name is Takeru.