Friday, May 19, 2006

The subject of international marriage in Japan, how foreigners live in Japan, and fully perceptions of other countries

One subject of interest in Japan is kokusai kekkon, or international marriage involving a Japanese and a person from another country. The fact that there's a defined word for this concept indicates that it's treated as a rather "special" idea, seemingly separate from normal marriage between two Japanese despite its increasing frequency. As Japan's society progresses, more and more men and women here seem open to the idea of finding spouses from other countries, especially in cities like Tokyo, where the rate of international unions can reach as high as 1 in 10. There are, of course, various hurdles to overcome when choosing to marry someone from another culture, be it Japan or anywhere else: you've got language issues, cultural barriers, and many other factors that must be kept in mind. The question of finding someone with compatible values is perhaps the biggest challenge, and keeping an open mind about alternate opinions and ways of doing things is important. An American woman I went to SDSU with married a Japanese man and ended up living very close to me here in Japan (small world). When she got pregnant, she made plans to go back to work soon after having the baby, which isn't uncommon in the U.S. but is quite rare here, and she was surprised at how strongly her Japanese husband and his family opposed her plan. A male friend of mine from the U.K. married a Japanese girl from Iwate, Japan, far to the North of Tokyo. After their wedding, his bride wanted him to try out the hot springs at the hotel, but he wasn't too keen on the idea of group bathing with other males (which no one thinks twice about here), and this caused some strain. Of course, there's no such thing as getting married a "country" -- every person is unique, and when you find someone you want to be with, each side must be flexible and open to new ideas.

There's an interesting show on TV every week that follows the life and times of a married couple, perhaps intended as a subliminal message to single people about the joys of being married in order to boost Japan's sagging birthrate. Recently they've been focusing on couples made up of Japanese husbands and foreign wives, and seeing how they went about their daily lives. One American woman who'd been here for ten years was quite interesting: she'd organized her apartment building into a co-op group so that they could buy food in bulk and save money, which is not something the average Japanese housewife would do. The show followed the couple around, discovering what subtle differences there were in their household compared to a normal Japanese one, how they did the shopping, what kinds of meals the wife prepared, and what friction she experienced with her Japanese husband (she hated his smoking). Language issues were also covered, including one that I could really feel for, how do you make your bilingual kids speak to you in English when they know you understand both languages?

It's funny how a person's perceptions work. Growing up in the 1970s, I knew nothing about Japan, except that Japanese people's lips didn't sync up with their mouths when they talked (this was due to the English dubbing of Godzilla and Gamera movies I watched). I distinctly remember thinking that Kimba the White Lion (Osamu Tezuka's Jungle Emperor Leo) must have been produced in Africa, not in Japan, because of copyright issues related to the animals, or something like that. Japanese people form some interesting perceptions about the U.S., too, and I've enjoyed learning about these during my time here. Japanese eat white rice with most every meal, and there's even a word that means "the main course of meat or vegetables that you eat with your rice" (okazu, also used to describe the main course you bring with your bento). The J-List Japanese staff reports that when they were kids, they thought Americans ate bread the same way, taking a plate of rolls or sliced bread with all three meals a day, no matter what you were having. It's common for famous American professional wrestlers to tour Japan, and J-List's Tomo says that his first impression of all Americans was based on those big gaijin wrestlers (it made no difference Andre the Giant was from France and Abdullah the Butcher was Canadian). I had a friend who was sure that Sony was an American company because of its English-sounding name, and once a housewife asked me in total seriousness if we had McDonald's in the USA. As always, it's fun to compare cultural differences.

J-List is proud to be cosponsoring the upcoming MusicFest 2006 at Fanime Con in San Jose this coming Memorial Day weekend (May 26-29). It's really a great event: six Japanese indies bands who will be performing on a live stage for fans at the show, several for the first time in the U.S. A once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear some great cutting-edge Japanese music live, a micro-Woodstock for the otaku generation, with all musical genres represented. If you want to hear some great JPOP/JROCK/JRAP, we hope you'll make it to the show. For information on this great convention, see this page.

We stopped off at a PA, which is a Parking Area on the freeway, an enclosed place where you can buy gas, hot udon, or shop for omiyage, souvinirs for friends. Here are some Gunma limited dry ramen noodles. Sounds yummy.

Hello Kitty cream cakes, officially called Yokohama Chiffon Cakes.

Rice cakes with baked soybeans on them.

They also sell ice cream, since you can buy ice cream anywhere in Japan, in any season. Note Lotte's Crunky, Morinaga's Monaka, and my favorite, Suica Bar, a watermelon ice cream bar with chocolate seeds. Mmm!

I talked about pro wrestlers today, and this is the most famous one of all, Antonio Inoki, who (among other things) is credited with introducing Tabasco sauce to Japan. I happened to meet him at LAX once, and politely asked if I could take my picture with him. He was awfully surprised to see a foreigner speaking to him in Japanese (since he's fluent in English and Portuguese).

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The subject of patriotism in Japan, bilingualism and the mystery of translation, and J-Culture in H-Games

One debate going on in Japan right now is what role patriotism should play in society. Currently, Japanese are perhaps the least patriotic people on the planet, with 47% of respondents answering that they didn't feel any particular sense of pride in, or love for, their country. This is something the government wants to change, but it's a sticky wicket, since an overabundance of patriotism coupled with a runaway desire to emulate Great Britain is what lead to the country running roughshod over its Asian neighbors seven decades ago. I caught an interesting TV show on this topic hosted by Japanese director Beat Takeshi, which featured Japanese-bilingual foreigners from a dozen countries including Korea, China, the U.S., Canada and Europe, who explained their own views on what patriotism meant to them. The show compared "patriotic" education in each country, including the lengthy steps countries like Korea and China take to produce loyal citizens who love their countries (including museums dedicated to Japanese attrocities). All nations do this to some extent, of course -- think of George Washington cutting down a cherry tree or throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac, for example -- but Japan has almost no mechanisms in place to make its people feel a reasonable sense of love-of-country, no Pledge of Allegiance. The Japanese flag and Japanese national anthem were only given official status by the Diet in 2000, and the national anthem isn't played regularly at sporting events like baseball and sumo wrestling, only at major events like the end of a championship or the last day of a sumo basho. I wonder what Japan can do to make its citizens feel more patriotic?

When you become bilingual in a language, you learn a lot about how your own brain works. Every act of learning involves a physical change in your brain, the creation of a new synaptic bridge from one cell to another, and sometimes it seems you can feel this at work in your head. The "mystery of translation" is also fascinating: the act of moving from one language to another takes place deep inside your brain, on a level below your conscious thoughts, almost like a background process in a computer. When I'm translating something from English into Japanese, I mentally place the phrase into my internal "translation buffer," wait half a second for the processing to complete, and then retrieve the result, without really being aware of how it's actually accomplished. The act of translation is actually quite separate from being able to speak a language, and really must be developed in tandem with general language skills. My daughter is quite fluent in both English and Japanese, and the other day I thought it'd be fun to ask her to translate some of the sentences from the book we're reading, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Although she understood the English sentences I read to her, she was unable to render them in Japanese -- it wasn't a skill she'd ever had to develop in her nine years on the planet.

One reason I like the PC dating-sim games that we sell is that they offer an alternate window into Japan's culture that can't be experienced any other way, since the games are quite long and involved and are interactive -- you're in control of the story. In the soon-to-be-released Doushin - Same Heart, there's an amusing scene in which Cham, a girl from Thailand, comes over to see Maki, the middle of the three Suruga sisters. Ryoko, the youngest sister, is totally shocked to see a "gaijin" at the door, and tries to speak broken English to her despite the fact that Cham is speaking Japanese -- something that happens quite a lot here. One of our favorite restaurants in our city is La Bodeguita, great ethnic place run by Peruvians of Japanese descent, and the spit-roasted chicken they serve is to die for. We like to go for the international atmosphere, to enjoy beers from South America and eat food that's very different from what's normally eaten in Japan. Although the restaurant is popular with our city's foreign population, we seldom see Japanese people eating there, and whenever we invite Japanese friends to go with us, they're invariably nervous about trying anything as exotic as Peruvian cuisine. This timidness on the part of Japanese people to take life by the horns and try new things is captured in another scene, also in Doushin, in which one character is inviting another to eat ethnic food, but the person is nervous to try it. It's fun to see what interesting cultural elements you can find even in Japan's bishoujo games.

J-List strives to show you a new side of Japan every day -- if we didn't, we wouldn't be J-List! We stock some cool DVDs that help you learn about the country and its language and people. If you've ever wanted to visit the country but didn't have the opportunity, why not check out Seven Days in Japan, a documentary about one man who realized his dream of coming to Japan. Or if you'd like to learn some fun Japanese phrases (including "how to be annoying in Japanese" and "Date with Keiko" episodes), we recommend the Best of YesJapan, a 4 hour DVD of fun topics related to Japanese that's very approachable for people with no Japanese skills at all.

More pics from Joyful Honda, the big store that has lots of art related stuff, and also home interior related products as well. These are name plates that you have custom made and stick outside your front door. For some reason, I find them absolutely fascinating to look at.

There are many different kinds, some etched in stone or steel, some carved out of glass. This one is cute.

That's how you write Toyota in kanji, in case you were wondering.

They have acitate sheets for artists, too, for all the old school guys out there who aren't doing their shading in Photoshop.

Styrafoam hemispheres, for various art projects. I was of course compelled to wear obe on my head and walk around like a Buddhist priest, which I can get away with since I'm a gaijin...

Monday, May 15, 2006

Ways to save the Japanese from extinction, the darling of figure skating, and cell phones for kids?

With Japan's population having already peaked, the country is undergoing a national debate about how to raise its brith rate. There are a lot of reasons why Japan's birthrate is so low, at just 1.38 children born per couple, including the pressures of urban society and those "rabbit hutch" apartments in Tokyo, a less-than-optimal environment for kids, the general march of social attitudes and of course, the costs involved with raising a child. Add to these factors the reality that people no longer need to have eight kids to ensure that some will survive to take care of them in their old age, and you've got a crisis. The ruling LDP is suggesting paying all birth-related costs for couples and giving an additional $50-per-child monthly stipend to families. These might be good ideas, but I have another one: an American-style day-care system. The time-honored way for working parents to raise a child in Japan is to have Obaachan (grandmother) babysit during the day, since many families live with their parents, or else put your child in your city's municipally-run pre-school, if you can get in. Adding an American-style private day-care system to the country would give people more choices about how and when to have children. Although U.S. day-care system might not be perfect, it's still better than the nonexistent system here.

The Japanese have a great interest in sports, especially in international events where they can compete on the world stage and show their best to other nations. With Shizuka Arakawa's gold medal in Torino Olympics, figure skating has become hugely popular, and many Japanese skaters are featured on TV almost daily. Leading the pack is the charming and talented Mao Asada (no relation to the former Chinese leader or to a Carne Asada Burrito), who at just 15 has already won a huge number of accoladaes for herself. In yesterday's Japan Open 2006 skating event she aced her program, helping put Japan over the top to beat out Team Europe and Team North America. Competing on the ice since the age of 5, she and her older sister Mai (who is also an accomplished skater) are the current darlings of the Japanese media. In addition to her cute face and incredibly graceful style on the ice, she has oversized ears, which (according to my Japanese wife) means that she'll be very successful and wealthy in her life, since money is meant to pour into large ears, or something like that.

As with most other countries, cell phones have become ubiquitous in Japan, and more than 90% of high school students carry a "keitai" (portable phone) everywhere they go, with even higher rates of adoption in other age groups. The market has gotten so saturated that Japan's major cellphone companies have turned to elementary school-age children as the next potential area for growth. The idea of kids carrying phones around with them takes some getting used to, of course, but companies like KDDI have done a good job thinking up features that are important to parents, such as GPS sensors that let parents find where their children are by viewing a website, or a function that sends a parent an IM when their child reaches a preset destination, like home. A big reason for the popularity of phones by younger students is related to Japan's group-oriented culture -- there's nothing worse than being nakama-hazure (na-kah-mah ha-zoo-rey), excluded from the larger group by, say, being the only one unable to exchange emails with friends. One side effect of Japan's widespread use of keitai phones is that people think of email or instant messages as something you do with a phone rather than with a computer. I wonder if this will have have a long-range effect on Japan's technical skills down the road?

Manga is a big part of Japan's culture, and J-List carries the popular Comic AG, the leading English-language magazine of "H" manga. Each issue is a treat, with 80 pages of English-translated manga, faithfully produced from the artist's original pages (not scanned from the printed Japanese editions, like many translated works), and will full detail on all art. Each issue is jut $4.99, perhaps the best bargain in the manga world. In addition to offering regular subscriptions to AG, you can buy blocks of back issues at a special price with our AGSET offering. We've updated the AGSET with the next five issues of AG, making it easy to pick up the back issues you need and save.

After waiting, like, a year, I finally took my Star Wars posters to the store to be framed. The store we like to go to is Joyful Honda, basically a massive sprawling store that sells anything art related. Plus it's fun to say "Joyful Honda."

If something's worth hanging in your office, it's worth getting a nice frame for it, I always say.

Here they're selling massive slabs of beautiful wood for various projects. I guess most people would make tables out of these.

Artistst sit inside the store and hand-create stuff while you watch. Here a guy was carving stone wells for use in Japanese calligraphy.

Among other things, they had a corner where they sold replicas of old keys and locks ("key" and "lock" are the same word in Japanese) which was not something I expected to exist in the world.

A bunch of old stuff, some of it pretty cool.