Friday, June 02, 2006

The first Japanese person to visit the USA, new tragedy of Japan's society, and all about Japanese culture shock

The first Japanese person to visit America was Manjiro Nakahama, a 14-year-old fisherman who was rescued in 1841 by an American whaling vessel and brought to the U.S., where he received a full education in English. This was during the era of sakoku ("closed country"), when Japan was officially shut off from contact from the outside world, except for a Dutch trading outpost on the island of Dejima in Nagasaki, and it was death for a Japanese person to travel abroad or have contact with foreigners. After 12 years of living outside Japan, "John" Manjiro returned, determined to try to convince the Shogun to end the sakoku policy. When Admiral Perry's Black Ships arrived in 1853, John Manjiro became an important figure, acting as translator and interpreter between the two parties. He went on to teach English, mathematics and ocean navigation, and was a major inspiration to Japan's future reformers like Ryoma Sakamoto (the Che Guevara of the Meiji Restoration) and Yukichi Fukuzawa (founder of Keio University, and the man whose face is on the 10,000 yen note).

Once again, the number of people who opted out of the rest of their lives through suicide in Japan topped 30,000, according to the National Police Agency. A total of 32,552 Japanese took the tragic step of ending their lives, about the same number as in the U.S. despite the fact that America's population is double Japan's. As usual, people over 60 and those with health problems were the largest group, with unemployed people also highly represented. The number of students of all ages makes up an all-too-tragic percent of the group, a likely indicator of the extra stresses that Japanese society can put on young people. It's not a problem that's easy to solve, but one area I think they should work harder in is counseling -- it's extremely rare for a Japanese to seek some kind of psychological help for a problem, and even if they do that kind of help is very hard to find in Japan.

Whenever you go to live in a new country, you're bound to have your share of culture shock, and I was no different when I first arrived in Japan. A wide range of professions, from the men who guide you past road construction to train station employees, have uniforms that looked to my eyes like police uniforms, so I was constantly wondering why there were so many police walking around in Japan. Every gas station, it seemed, had a big flashing light that looked like police lights, which are really there to attract customers -- but I kept thinking there were accidents ahead of me on the road when it was just a "gasoline stand." I was amazed at the beautiful ceramic tiles on Japanese houses, which made them look, well, very Japanese. And the vending machines -- you couldn't drive a kilometer without passing twenty or thirty of them on either side of you. But one of the biggest shocks was that all but the largest streets in a Japanese city have no names. To give directions in Japan, you tell someone to turn left at the beauty shop, go straight, then turn at the pachinko parlor, or you draw them a map. I distinctly remember wanting to get my other gaijin friends together and name all the streets in our city.

Kanji is cool, and J-List popularized Japanese-themed T-shirts with our best-selling "Looking for a Japanese Girlfriend" and other original designs. Today we've got a great new T-shirt for you: the austere cover of a Japanese passport. A great design that's both elegant and uniquely Japanese, the shirts come in red (standard men's size) and navy blue (fitted girl's shirt), the colors that Japanese passports are made in. Get one of each and go for what's known as the "pair look" (when a couple wears matching shirts) -- kawaii!

Ueno Park is a beautiful sprawling park in Northern Tokyo. I'd actually never been there in 15 years of living in Japan, so I was surprised so much "vibrant greenery" (to use a Japanese phrase) around me. It was the scene of some big battle during the Meiji Restoration when pro-Emperor/pro-reform troops battled the Shogun.

Lining up for the Nasca museum event. There were a zillion people there and the sun was baking.

The Japanese, bless their hearts, had all signs dutifully presented in Japanese...and Spanish. Kind of hard on a "regular" gaijin like me.

We were quite taken with the gift shop on our way out. Here they are selling replicas of hominid skulls for $900 or so. This would not be the last thing I'd think of buying, actually.

Cool shirt.

Another item in the gift shop, a replica of the human brain. Hmmm, yeah.

The most famous point in Ueno Park is, of course, the giant statue of Saigo Takamori, who is the guy portrayed in The Last Samurai.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Buddhism and Japan's identity, an air-raid siren at noon, and

Japan is a Buddhist nation, and despite many other influences such as the indigenous animistic Japanese religion of Shinto, Confucianism from China and Christianity from the West, Buddhism is really what's at the country's core. One observation foreigners who come to live for a time in Japan is that "everything is about death" -- and there are quite a few customs, such as avoiding giving gifts in sets of four since the number can be read as "shi" which also means death in Japanese, or lighting incence at the Buddhist altar each morning, that seem to show a fixation on the subject. One word I've always found interesting is Hotoke-sama (ho-toe-kay sah-mah). Ostensibly the word is a reverent term for Buddha, but in practice, it's used to refer to any deceased spirit, since Buddhism in Japan is largely about revering one's ancestors, without whom (my wife has pointed out to me) you wouldn't exist at all. Once, my daughter saw beautiful sakura blooming near a graveyard, and she said, "That's so nice, the flowers are so pretty, the people buried here (the Hotoke-sama) will be so happy."

Every day while working in Japan, I immediately know when noon has rolled around because a siren located in the center of town goes off. It's not just any siren -- it's essentially the same type of air-raid siren that sounded half a century ago when Japan was being bombed by Allied B-29's. The siren sounds every day at noon to let people know that it's lunch time, but it serves some other purposes as well. First of all, it's used to let people know when there's a local disaster such as a fire, and hearing the siren at night means everyone should check their neighbors to make sure everything is okay. In this way, it kinds of provides a little "community glue" for the people living in our city, unconsciously making everyone feel a part of the same happy group unit, since practically everyone in our city is within hearing distance of the loud siren. When I first heard it, it was somewhat un-nerving, since it's not a sound you normally hear outside of movies about World War II. But now it's just a part of life in my home in Japan.

The Japanese drink a lot of tea: hot green tea, thick matcha, refreshing Chinese oolong tea, an array of Western black teas, and an endless number of blends. In the summer, perhaps no tea is consumed more than mugi cha, or Japanese barley tea, refreshing beverage made with barley that's always served cold to combat the heat and humidity outside. When businessmen call on a client, they will be served mugi tea to refresh them while they wait, and in the J-List kitchen downstairs, barley tea is what you'll find in the fridge (we drink it all summer long). Naturally caffeine-free, Japanese barley tea is a refreshing and totally healthy drink that's popular throughout Japan. We just happen to have this year's mugi cha on the site for you, which make it easy to keep barley tea handy any time, with easy to use cold-water tea bags. We hope you'll try some!

J-List carries a great item for fans of yaoi / bishonen and all fans of great gothic style art, Animamundi - Dark Alchimist, the newest release by Hirameki International. A superb interactive game with 12 fascinating game scenarios to explore, it comes packaged with a great soundtrack/movie disc. Best of all, you can enjoy this great game not just on any standard Windows PC, but on Macs, too, since the game is fully compatible with Mac OS X. It's in stock -- order now!

We interrupt whatever I was going to show yu last time with....kittens! Our beloved cat Mimi-chan (who J-List's Kaori had found, and named Nyanko Sensei) died recently (hit by a car, and yet she trekked very far to come say goodby to us). Happily, we were given two very cute kittens to replace her.

Their names keep changing, but last time I checked they were Shiro and Kuu-chan.

This is Shiro. She's kind of rambunctious, and likes to play...then sleep.

Kuu-chan is more mature, and was able to use the litterbox right away -- very smart. If you ever want to bond a cat to you forever, get a good brustley brush and brush them, and they'll be as loyal to you as dogs

Coming soon...more on Pete's trip to Tokyo and Ueno Park.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Looking back on 15 years of anime fandom, Japan's culture of flowers, and pouring your own drink

Hello from beautiful San Jose. We've been enjoying the vibrant anime fans here at Fanime Con, and if you're in the area we hope you were able to attend the show (and the great music concerts held over the weekend). During the show, a convention-goer came by wearing a T-shirt from Anime Con '91, the very first anime convention held in the U.S., which we also attended right here in San Jose. We suddenly found ourselves waxing natsukashii (nostalgic) over all that had happened in the last fifteen years to anime culture and general awareness of Japan by the West. 1991 was very different from 2006, and no one was sure if Japanese animation was popular enough to support an actual convention all on its own -- the show attracted just 1600 fans, compared to 33,000 at the last Anime Expo. There were many top-named Japanese guests of honor at the first Anime Con, including Macross character designer Mikimoto, Nadia/Evangelion artist Sadamoto and Bubblegum Crisis artist Kenichi Sonoda (who ate breakfast with us every morning). Those were great days to be interested in Japan, and we all learned so much.

For myself, I've never really been that much of a flower person, aside from buying roses or carnations on Mother's Day, that sort of thing. But by and large, Japan is a very flower-centric place, with a lot of attention paid to flowers in many ways. There are many customs related to enjoying the various flowers that bloom in each season. In March, there are ume (plum) flowers, then sakura in April, and right now, irises are in bloom. Japanese have been known to eat flowers in kaiseki ryori, the traditional meals of Kyoto. Japan is a Buddhist nation, and many solemn flowers such as white lillies are featured in funerals. Once I committed one of the most embarrassing faux pas a gaijin could make: I went to a flower shop to pick out some flowers for my wife, and the ones I asked for turned out to be chrysanthemums, which in Japan are only used for placing on graves in memory of the dead. I was quite embarrassed after my wife picked herself up off the floor from laughing and explained it all to me.

You know you've lived in Japan too long when you're incapable of pouring your own beer. It's true -- in Japan it's customary for friends to pour beer or sake (sah-KAY, never "saki") for each other, and "lifer" gaijin like me get so used to this that anything else becomes impossible. Pouring your own drink is called tejaku, and it's rarely done in mixed company -- although in enka, the traditional sad music of Japan that fills the same niche as country music in the U.S., the image of a broken man pouring his own sake while he cries his eyes out over his lost love, is quite common. Back in the U.S., I've run into a little culture shock when drinking with friends as I wonder if it's okay to pour my own drink in their presence, or if we should the everyone-pour- drinks-for-each-other thing they do in Japan. Ah, it's fun to live with one foot in Japan and the other in the States.