Friday, May 05, 2006

Golden Week in Japan, "indoctronating" my bilingual kids, and all about the otaku

We're right in the middle of Golden Week, a cluster of Japanese holidays that usually fall near each other. One of three extended holiday periods in Japan (the other two being the Obon holidays in August and the first few days of the New Year), Golden Week has become sort of a national icon of Japan's success in evolving to the point where its salarymen can actually stop working for a while and be with their families. It can be a difficult time for parents, though, with kids home from school, complaining loudly that they want to go somewhere fun. The problem is that there are potentially millions of other families in exactly the same situation, wanting to enjoy some quality leisure time during the holiday week, which means long traffic jams and lines everywhere. Tokyo Disneyland, for example, closes its doors very soon after opening each morning as it quickly reaches its occupancy limit. It can be just as bad out here in rural Japan, since Tokyoites are eager to get away from their asphalt and concrete jungle, so they come here. The other day I heard that the traffic jam to get to Karuizawa, a pleasant resort town in the mountains, was a whopping 27 km long. On Sunday there will be a mad rush to get back to the Tokyo area, with ten hours or more of sitting in traffic for everyone. Poor blighters.

My wife and I raise our two kids to respect both their Japanese and American halves, and we go out of our way to expose them to both cultures. I've made sure to "indoctrinate" my kids in various ways, introducing them to School House Rock and Star Wars and Raisin Bran and the Charlie Brown Halloween Special ("I got a rock" is a huge joke in our family). My wife handles the Japanese side of things, making sure they've got all the requisite cultural knowledge expected of them here, from how to say proper aisatsu (greetings) to people on the street to how to clean the family grave when doing haka-mairi (visiting the family grave to pay respects to family members who have gone on). She also handles their education, including drilling them in kanji writing. The day we feared as parents of bilingual children has arrived, though: our kids are starting to eclipse our own language abilities. My wife helps my son study for his Step test at level 2.5, usually only attempted by Japanese ten years older them him, and he often shocks her by knowing (or sensing) the correct answer to problems that completely stump her. I'm not off the hook, either: we sometimes have "kanji battles" between me and my kids, and all too often they eat me for lunch.

As awareness of Japanese animation and manga has grown over the past few decades, the word otaku has become quite well-known. Originally a polite word meaning "you" or "your family," otaku has come to stand for anyone with a strong interest in anime, manga, cosplay, or any other aspect of Japan's popular geekish sub-culture. Being an otaku in Japan does have its negative side, of course -- in the new Apple commercial with "that new digital camera from Japan," the Japanese woman says "Who is this person? He looks like an otaku" of the man representing the PC. There are several theories about how this everyday Japanese word attained this unique alternate meaning. According to one, the fact that "otaku" was spoken frequently by characters in the original Macross series caused fans to start using it, creating the beginnings of the otaku movement. Alternately, many of the employees of General Products, the model company that would go on to become the mighty Gainax, hail from Tottori Prefecture (the only part of Japan to sport its own desert), and in the local dialect, otaku is the most commonly used second-person pronoun.

Speaking of otaku, we just happen to have a cool new Japanese T-shirt that parodies the famous Oakley logo, changing it into a proud otaku badge you can wear for all to see. If you're in touch with your inner geek and appreciate Japan's unique pop culture, this is a great shirt for you!

Here are today's "really cool products" that I thought were especially noteworthy. Note: the J-List links below may be for adult products and should probably be considered "not safe for work." To see all the J-List products, check out J-List or the updated products link.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The link between North Korea and Japan, Japan's many seasons, and imitation being the sincerest form of flattery

The major link between North Korea and Japan is a cruise ship called the Mangyonbon-go, which makes regular trips between the ports of Wonsan in North Korea and Niigata here. In addition to being the most difficult-to-pronounce word according to a poll of newscasters (trying saying MAHN-gyon-bone-goh five times fast), the ship represents the only normalized link between the two countries, and for many Japanese of North Korean descent, the only way to journey back and visit relatives. The ship has caused trouble between the two countries because of concern that it's being used to funnel forbidden electronics from Japan back to the communist state. North Korea has a nationally-sponsored program of printing U.S. and Japanese currency, and also manufactures industrial-grade drugs to smuggle into Japan, which they use to fund their government and destabilize their enemies. There are concerns that the ship is being used to smuggle these items into the country, and every time the Mangyonbon-go makes a call into the port at Niigata, there's a huge flurry of negative news reports about potential problems with the ship's visits, especially with all the anger here over the kidnapping of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 80s.

"You've been in Japan too long when you believe that the country only has four seasons." The Japanese are exceedingly proud of the fact that their country has four distinct seasons, compared with only two in the U.S. (or so people who have never been anywhere but California believe), and there are many customs designed to enjoy each seasons in its own unique way here. In reality, of course, there are about 12 seasons in Japan if you count the in-between ones, like sakura season, a brief week in early April when the cherry blossoms are so beautiful; rainy season in June, when it drizzles most every day; hayfever season, when Japan's policy of using one tree and only one tree in its national forestry program (the Japan Cedar, or sugi tree) causes massive problems for allergy sufferers throughout the country as the trees pollinate; and typhoon season, when massive Pacific storms batter the country every few days in September. A few weeks ago we had a bad bout of "Asian Dust," a strange seasonal phenomenon throughout the region where "yellow sand" (kousa, in Japanese, 黄砂) blows from China's Gobi Desert across Korea and Japan, dirtying our cars and creating various health problems. Sometimes I wish there were only four seasons in Japan...

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if so, the Japanese are very polite indeed. Due to the tendency for people here to look up to Europe and America as "higher" cultures than their own (which is known as seiyo suhai shugi, literally meaning "worship of the West-ism"), Japanese have a great tradition of copying good ideas they find abroad. You can see signs of Japan's fixation with the West in many places -- Tokyo Tower is a scale replica of the Eiffel Tower that they built just for the fun of it, after all. If you go to Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, you can see Japan's version of the beautiful Dover Cliffs. There's a range of mountains called the Japan Alps, and in Tokyo's Shibuya area, a hill called Spain-zaka (Spanish Hill), named after the famous Spanish Steps in Rome. Japan has its own Academy Awards ceremony where Japanese directors and actors receive awards for Japanese films (not that there are that many made). Most recently I stumbled across the website of the Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, which names itself MoMAT, in imitation of MoMA in New York.

Remember that Mothers Day is not far away (May 14 this year), and J-List has plenty of unique ways to say "thanks" to your Mom. From cool traditional items for the home to the amazingly cute toys like Hidamari no Tami or the adorable head-nodding Unazukin -- remember, there's one of these that has "thank you" written right on it. We also have J-List gift certificates, a super way to send the gift of wacky things from Japan to anyone -- let her pick her own gift!

So, they have these limited edition cars, see, not unlike the Harley Davidson Limited Ford F-150. This is a car branded with Miki House, an annoyingly cute makers of children's toys.

I mean, cute culture is good, I'm all for it. But this is just awful...

Maybe it's a rip-off job or something, someone made the stickers themselves and pasted them on.

"The mild flavor, carefully prepared from the high quality milk, will enrich the taste of cuisine." For the record, the English word "the" is really hard for people from other countries to use.