Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Japan's train culture, all about rice and the Japanese, and the Japanese word "ne"

Japan is a very rail-centric place, and trains are a big part of life here. In big cities like Tokyo, trains and subways run everywhere you want to go, and many Tokyoites forego owning a car, especially faced with the prospect of spending $300-500 a month on a parking space for the vehicle. The largest railroad companies in Japan are the six Japan Railway ("JR") entities, which were created as private companies out of the wreckage of the old state-run National Railroad in a breakup not unlike AT&T. There are numerous other train lines operating in various parts of the country, run by companies that usually operate department stores and own baseball teams, for some reason I have yet to figure out. I have fond memories of traveling around Japan on the Youth 18 ticket, which lets you go anywhere you want on any JR line for around $20 -- a great way to see the country, as long as you don't mind riding the slow local trains. Japan's train network is a well-oiled machine, operating so efficiently that you never even think about it until something goes wrong. Something did go wrong yesterday, when construction crews working under the Yama-no-te line's tracks caused the tracks to become elevated, so JR shut down the entire line while they checked into the problem. The closing of this important train line, the loop line that runs around Tokyo, was a huge mess, and a whopping 320,000 people were unable to ride to their destinations for five hours.

You can't live in Japan without eating rice, the staple food of the Japanese, usually consumed with each meal. Rice is usually prepared in an automated rice cooker, a device that's as important to Japanese households as the refrigerator or television. Take a trip to a denki-ya (electronics store) and you'll see that many companies competing to bring the best rice cookers to market, from Mitsubishi to Sanyo to Zojirushi. Just as the Eskimos have more words for "snow" than the rest of us, there are quite a few words for rice, like uncooked rice (kome), unpolished rice (genmai), steamed rice (gohan, which also refers to all food), newly cultivated rice (shinmai, also used to refer to a new employee at an organization), and so on. The kanji for "rice" is one of the most basic ones and includes the characters for the numbers 88 inside it, a Buddhist concept that represents the 88 steps that go into each grain of rice. The essence of "living life as you should" seems to be to eat rice each day, and back when I was single and living in an apartment, I was often asked Chanto gohan taiteiru no? (Are you cooking rice for yourself properly?) -- i.e. was I making healthy food for myself, and not just eating cup ramen every night.

If you've paid attention while watching Japanese anime, you've probably picked up on the word ne. This is an interesting Japanese grammatical particle that usually goes on the ends of sentences and serves several purposes, mostly related to asking for confirmation of information or agreement with an opinion. Here are two examples:

Aisu kohii futatsu desu ne? Two glasses of ice coffee, is that right?
Kyou wa atsui desu ne. It's hot today, isn't it?

Other functions of the all-purpose Japanese particle ne include softening a sentence so its meaning it less harsh (Chotto furotimashita ne. You've gained a little weight, haven't you?); emphasizing what you want to say (Kondo chanto kiite kudasai, ne. Please listen closely next time, alright?); working as a pause in sentences; and to get the attention of the listener before saying something. Girls use ne more often than guys and with a higher intonation, so males should use the word with caution lest they appear effeminate.

We had a few problems with the website on Monday and Tuesday evenings, which caused products to disappear from the site for a couple hours (all categories reported "no products found"). We're very sorry about the interruption -- everything's working now, and hopefully the problem, a glitch in our server setup, will not come back.

J-List is hiring again in our San Diego location. We've got a job opening for a shipping clerk to fill web and wholesale orders, handle receiving of products, and so on. If you're interested in helping evangelize our brand of Japanese pop culture, we'd love to work with you. See here for details. (Unfortunately, we can only consider people currently in the San Diego area for this position.)

It was Easter last Sunday for us, even though we're well past the real date. I brought some Easter Egg decorations to share with the girl scouts here in Japan.

The eggs came out quite good, although I am not much of a teacher when it comes to these things.

I bought cheap baskets for the kids to decorate. My mother had also dutifully sent chocolates from the U.S. which I passed along.

The Hello Kitty stickers I had brought along were also quite popular.

We wanted to have an Easter Egg hunt, but Japanese aren't too big on putting food that you're going to eat on the ground (the eggs). So we had a Kit Kat hunt instead, and it was a big success.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Being more health-conscious in aging Japan, Japan's prefectural system, and what does "3LDK" mean

Japan as a nation is getting older, and is having to come to terms with this fact sooner than other countries. I've noticed a high awareness of the changes that are coming for Japan, whether it's companies talking about "barrier-free" products or every automobile maker promoting new wheelchair-friendly vehicles in their product catalogs. I caught an interesting show on TV the other night that basically submitted a panel of famous "talents" (a catch-all word meaning any actor, singer, model or comedian) to the grueling full-body check-up known as ningen dokku ("human dock"), which checked their entire bodies from head to toe for irregularities, including full MRI body scan. Then, different doctors came out to discuss various problems found with each person. Attractive model Yasu Megumi got by with some eating and stress-related problems, while actress and dancer Aya Sugimoto ran into trouble over her after-work wine drinking. Tomiyo Umezawa, a kabuki actor famous for his female roles, got dinged for his 50 cigarette-a-day smoking habit, while comedian Razor Ramon scored poorly on his mental health exam due to the great stress of wearing his public "HG" (which means "Hard Gay, although he isn't) face 24 hours a day (he can't even take his sunglasses off, as they're part of his public persona). The biggest health problems were found in pro wrestler Choshu Koriki, who had never gone to a doctor in his life and had built a media personality around his big gut and bicycle shorts.

In the Japanese system of prefectures and cities is quite different from what we're used to in the States. The current Japanese system, which was based on the French prefectural system (or at least that's what the Japanese believe), came about when Japan modernized its infrastructures during the Meiji Restoration. Basically, there are 47 prefectures (ken), along with Hokkaido and the Tokyo Metropolitan Area, which like the District of Columbia in the U.S. is separate from the normal system of prefectures. Inside each prefecture, there are three kinds of incorporated areas: cities (shi), towns (machi or cho, two readings for the same kanji character) or villages (mura). Inside the large city areas, such as the city we live in, there are small "town" areas designated, so that a person may live in Sakura Town, Takasaki City, Gunma Prefecture, Japan. Streets are not generally named in Japan, so a physical address will just be a numbered block inside that part of the town. If you think it's terribly confusing to have a whole country with no named streets or numbered houses, you're right! Basically, if you don't have a clear map to wherever it is you're going in Japan, you're probably not going to get there. As populations rise and fall in Japan (usually fall, it's sad to say), sometimes a new city is born, as small municipalities join together to try to make their region more attractive for tourism and industry. The idea, I guess, is that if people are leaving the rural areas for cities, we'll redefine some of the areas to be "cities" (even if they're not very urban).

Here are the answers on the Japanese "English" (quote unquote) abbreviations from last time. 3LDK means a 3-room apartment with a "living-dining-kitchen" (i.e., one main room for cooking, eating and relaxing). PA is a Japanese term meaning "parking area," and refers to the rest stops you see along the freeway. If someone asks you to check their HP, they're inviting you to see their homepage. OA means "office automation," and buying an "OA desk" means you're getting a desk that's designed to work with computers (perhaps it has a power strip built into it, or a special rail in the back for organizing cables). Baseball fans know that an FA is a "free agent" who isn't a part of the players union, but represents himself in contract negotiations. And IC means "interchange" and is just a freeway on-ramp.

Among other things, J-List works hard to bring Japan's PC dating-sim games to English-speaking fans, and we carry virtually every game in print, from great companies like Peach Princess, JAST USA, G-Collections and more. We're happy to announce that the latest game from Peach Princess, Doushin - Same Heart, has gone "golden master" and is being duplicated right now. The three Suruga sisters have a strange power: whenever one of them feels a sensation, the feeling is transferred to the other two immediately. If one girl were to prick her finger, the other two would feel the same pain...and if one of them were to get, er, excited, the same thing would happen to the other two, no matter where they were. This is a great new game, the first "zapping" adventure seen in the English language, which allows you to play the game from the viewpoint of the three sisters and move from one character to another freely. In a way, the game is quite similar to one the very first "H" game we ever brought out, Three Sisters' Story, and I'm very glad to be making it available to fans. (By the way, you can still preorder it and get free shipping!)