Friday, April 07, 2006

Traffic safety week, things you have to get used to in Japan, and all about the Yakuza

Japan has one of the lowest birthrates of any modern nation, with just 1.38 children born per couple, which will increasingly make Japanese people a rare commodity in the years to come. It is perhaps in this spirit of preserving every person they can that the Japanese national police agency is holding this year's Spring Traffic Safety Week, a time of increased police presence on the streets and general awareness of the importance of traffic safety. Everywhere you go you see flags promoting "safety driving" (sic) and creative thinking about ways to reduce traffic accidents and deaths. Kids in school get visits from the designated safety officer, who talks to them about how to make sure cars see them while walking home from school and how important seat belts are. Traffic Safety Week, which is also held in the fall, is quite an event, and various volunteer groups like the Lions Club, the Japan Rotary Club and the Girl Scouts all hold various related events.

Like most countries, Japan has its unsavory elements, including organized crime. Japan's version of the Italian mafia are the yakuza (YAH-koo-za), a name which literally means "8 9 3" and refers to a losing hand in a traditional Japanese card game. The yakuza have almost four hundred years of history dating from the Edo Period, when the nation was closed off to outside influence and able to grow free of the wars that had plagued previous eras. While yakuza have been seen as defenders of the weak in popular lore, in reality they're very smart criminals with excellent organizational skills who operate various businesses, from illegal high-interest loans to shady drinking establishments in Tokyo's Kabuki-cho district where simply going in can expose you to an exorbitant "sit down charge." Yakuza are famous for their incredible full-body tattoos, a popular art form in Japan, and since public baths are a favorite spot for both yakuza types and yours truly I've seen my share of these, even though virtually every public bath has a "no tattoos allowed" sign up. Although yakuza are gangsters, they're usually very polite, and it's considered good form for a well-connected person to have a few yakuza friends, just in case. Yakuza are often associated with "uyoku" (oo-YO-koo), Japan's famously loud right-wingers who drive around in huge trucks blasting World War II era songs and, occasionally, the theme from the classic anime Space Cruiser Yamato (it's always fun as an "enemy" American to sing along with them and watch the expressions on their faces). Once I was talking with a tattooed yakuza friend after a bath, and he asked me to teach his kids English once a week. I declined, but that would be been an experience worth blogging about...

If you ever come live in Japan, there are some fundamental things you need to get used to. First of all, if you're from a country that uses the English system of measurements, you'll need to get comfortable with centimeters, kilometers, and kilograms -- and before long you'll be annoying your friends back home by using the Metric system on them. Next, you'll have to get used to the Japanese era name system, which basically assigns a name to the reign of each Emperor (this year is Heisei 18, the 18th year of the current Emperor, Akihito). Sure, everyone knows the Western calendar, but on a day-to-day basis, it's actually more common to reference years using the traditional Japanese system -- for example, I was born in Showa 43, came to Japan in Heisei 3, got married in Heisei 5, and we started J-List in Heisei 8. Getting used to money can be a pain, too, since Japanese use the Chinese numbering system that's based on the unit of 10,000 (1 mahn), rather than 1,000 as in the West. While it's certainly possible to laboriously convert, say, 10 mahn to 100,000 every time you talk, before long you'll probably find yourself comfortable with the Japanese system.

J-List offers many ways for people interested in learning the Japanese language, from flashcards to kanji practice notebooks to Japanese report paper. We have a great announcement for you: the return of Nihongo Journal, the excellent monthly magazine dedicated to serious students of Japanese. Each 126 page magazine is loaded with articles, kanji and vocabulary building exercises, and features content in English, Korean and Chinese. Best of all, you get the audio CD with each issue, which helps you learn to recognize spoken Japanese (highly recommended for people not lucky enough to live here like us). We have the January 2006 issue on the site now!

More fun at convenience stores. These are chocolate covered corn puffs. Yech!

Or would you like to go with coffee flavored marshmallows?

I've written before about vinegar and how Japanese will drink a glass after eating (it's very healthy, supposedly). Here's a packaged product you can buy: honey sweetened kurozu ("black vinegar").

A bug in our apartment already. I guess winter must be over.

I've finally finished reading Touch and Miyuki, two classic manga by the famous Mitsuru Adachi, who happens to be from our city (Isesaki). Both stories were excellent, although the ending to Miyuki really bowled me over (I won't talk about it here since there might be fans out there -- I mean, it is being fan-subbed).

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The tradition of sitting on the floor in Japan, differences in business culture, and using non sequitors in Japanese

One tradition every foreigner living in Japan must come to terms with is sitting on the floor. The Japanese do a lot of floor sitting, and even the most modern house will probably have at least one traditional Japanese-style room with tatami mats and a low table that you use while sitting or kneeling in seiza style. My house is a two-story home with my Japanese wife's parents living on the first floor and all of us living upstairs. Whenever we're downstairs we sit around a low table with a heater inside called a kotatsu, sitting on little cusions called zabuton (which literally means "sitting futon"). Of course, it's not really all that comfortable to sit on the floor for long periods of time, and my wife and I are much happier upstairs in our Western-style living room with normal sofa and dining table.

Every country is different, and companies trying to do business in a new place have to change their strategy to fit local customs and expectations. 1992 was a great year for foreigners living in our prefecture -- the Subway sandwich chain, which was expanding into Japan at the time, had discovered our city and decided to put a store in. This was back in the days when the only taste of "back home" was McDonald's, and it was a major coup if a person could score some imported Doritos from an expensive department store. So the entire gaijin population of our city flocked to enjoy the novelty of eating Subway sandwiches in Japan, and everyone was happy for a while. Unfortunately the company had made a miscalculation: they had located their restaurant near the local university, which is no doubt where you put a Subway if you're in the U.S. In a country like Japan, though, it makes much more sense to locate a business across the street from train stations, where you can benefit both from increased visibility and plenty of foot traffic. Since the local university was far from the heart of the city, our precious Subway had a hard time getting enough customers and closed its doors less than a year later.

Asian students of English as a Second Language get a lot of flack for answering "yes" to questions even though they didn't understand what had just been said to them, but I can totally understand where they're coming from. Learning how to "fake" understanding in certain situations is an important part of learning a foreign language and interfacing socially with people from other countries. One strategy for communication that's used by Japanese when speaking English (and by me at times, in Japanese), is the non sequitur, a reply that can be used as a response to just about any question, including questions you might not have understood. Back in my bachelor days, I went to a live orchestra performance and was surprised to hear that the organizers had "randomly" chosen three people from the audience to get up and conduct the orchestra: a cute old woman, a little girl, and funny American who happened to speak Japanese, namely me. I got up on the conductors podium, trying to ignore the hundreds of people with their eyes focused on me, and lead the Maebashi Philharmonic Orchestra in the first few bars of Beethoven's 5th. I only got a little ways into the music, because my total lack of timing caused the musicians to ground to a halt soon after they started. When I was done, the MC asked me some questions about where I was from, how I liked my first time conducting an orchestra, and...something else, that I didn't happen to catch. Rather than embarrass myself in front of so many people by asking the MC to repeat herself, I gave her a very generic answer: So desu ne, which literally means "yes, that's so" but in practice, doesn't really mean anything at all (so it fit the bill perfectly).

We've got a wacky new T-shirt for you today, a parody of the famous ESRB rating logo for video games that rates the wearer as "Rated H" and warns others to stay away from this "very dangerous person." A really fun design that will bring many laughs, with another warning on the back that you are "extremely ecchi" and "supremely sukebe" -- great because people who get the joke will laugh, while everyone else won't know what the shirt means (always nice).

Do you love anime? If so, then why not subscribe the popular anime magazines direct from Japan, like Newtype, Animage and Megami Magazine through J-List's revolving magazine subscription system? These magazines are great for keeping your finger on the pulse of the Japanese industry and following the most popular shows and characters. And these issues are loaded with color pictures, posters and other fun stuff, even if you can't read Japanese. Best of all, all our subscriptions are month-to-month, and you can switch to other magazines or end a subscription at any time. You can also opt for credit card, check or money order or Paypal payments.

More pictures from Kusatsu. This is a cool old omiyageya-san (gift shop).

Get ready for your closs-up.

This is the official logo of the Barber's Association of Japan, the industry group that all barbers belong to. It's kind of cool and old-skool.

This is one of the little hot springs places that they set up for people to go in and bathe. There are plenty of places that cost money, but these free ones are more fun.

This was another one of the free bath places. It was hotter than a demon's arse in there, so hot that I could barely stay in for 20 seconds. I hated to be the typical "gaijin who can't get in the bath because it's too hot" but there was nothing I could do.

The Japanese get a little happy about o-yu (hot water from a natural hot spring) and go on about how it cures arthritis, chills, muscle pain, and so on. This is an actual song about the water of Kusatsu, etched into the pavement.

I visited the Kusatsu branch of G-Collections to pick up some stock of bishoujo games. Psyche! This is just a store with the same name.

This is the car that was next to ours. I snapped a pic of their license in case they scratched our car or anything, since they were kind of rowdy and were parked very close to us.

Good bye, Kusatsu...

Monday, April 03, 2006

Spring vacation without kids, our trip to some hot hot springs, and all about Jidai Geki

It's spring vacation in Japan now, and rather than having the kids hanging around the house with nothing to do, we packed them up and shipped them off to someplace they could have more fun. My son is in Okinawa with some kids from his school, enjoying the sun and hopefully learning about the culture of the island (very different from mainland Japan). My daughter, meanwhile, is 8275 km away, in Auckland, New Zealand, with a group of kids and a tour guide from our city. I lived in New Zealand for a year in 1976, and have many fond memories of glow worms, One Tree Hill and Big Ben's Meat Pies. I hope she has fun there, too.

While we've got some time to ourselves with no kids (truly the Holy Grail for any married couple), my wife an I headed up into the mountains for some quality onsen ("own-sen"), Japan's traditional hot springs. Japan is a very volcanic place, with 10% of the world's 840 active volcanoes located here, and while this can be a bad thing when there are eruptions or earthquakes, it's certainly good for people who love bathing in natural hot springs (like me). There are many towns that are famous for their hot springs all around the country, but happily, our prefecture is home to Kusatsu Onsen, considered by many to be Nippon Ichi, the best in Japan. We had a nice time, roaming the streets of the town (which has been famous for 800 years, twice as long as there have been Europeans living in the New World), stopping to take a dip at the many town-operated free baths along the way. You can't go to a hot springs without eating some onsen manju, a kind of traditional cake with sweet beans inside that's served steamed -- it's delicious.

The world of jidai geki, or TV period dramas set in the era of the samurai, is an incredibly rich and complex one, and I've always thought that dramas about Japan's past fill roughly the same role for the Japanese as Shakespeare does for people in English-speaking countries. Japanese period dramas are incredibly popular, and there's one on most every night, either on Japan's public broadcasting channel NHK or one of the private networks. Just as there are many eras of Japanese history, there are different kinds of period drama, with highly dramatic and violent stories from the sengoku jidai ("warring states period" when different feudal lords sought to control the country) to semi-legendary stories from the more stable Edo Period, to stories about the turbulence experienced as Japan was forced open by Admiral Perry's Black Ships. Some of these dramas are fun stories about famous folk heroes with lots of swordplay, such as the popular Mito Komon, running for a mind-boggling 37 years without interruption. Over the years, there has always been a special class of jidai geki actors who distinguished themselves in this medium in the same way Laurence Olivier has in his various Shakespearean roles. Ken Matsudaira will always been remembered for his role as the Abarenbo Shogun, who loved to disguise himself as a commoner and roam the streets of Edo, and who could forget Katsu Shintaro as he original blind swordsman Zatoichi?

J-List makes a line of original "wacky Japanese T-shirts" and hoodies with fun messages in kanji, and we're very proud of how popular our creations have become with everyone who digs Japan. Our flagship T-shirt is the famous "Looking for a Japanese Girlfriend" design, which we were rather surprised to see featured in the current issue of Newsweek (April 3 issue, page 56). See a scan of the "Test your Geek Chic" here.

J-List sells many cool things from Japan, and one thing we love bringing people around the world are Japanese snacks. We sell hundreds of different kinds of unique Japanese snacks, going beyond the basics like Pocky (although we've got all flavors of that, too) to harder-to-find favorites like Melty Kiss, Morinaga Choco Ball, and the oddly-named Crunky and Asse. We also carry the amazing Japan-only flavors of Kit Kat, including the new Green Tea Kit Kat in deluxe sized packages. We're happy to bring you a new limited Kit Kat Spring Set, with samples of all the delicious Japan-only Kit Kat snacks made this year.

Heading out to Kusatsu in our new Mazda MPV.

I do think this is one of the best iPod-in-car setups I've seen. I can even pipe video to the front or rear monitors.

It was about a 3 hour drive. Because there were no kids this time, it seemed very quiet and peaceful.

This is the most famous part of Kusatsu, the Yubatake or "boiling water field."

A very beautiful scene. Of course, the air smells very strongly of sulfur.