Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Japan's education and going to school on Saturdays, the Protestant Work Ethic in Japan, and all about Japanese dentists

I've always been impressed with Japan's dedication to education, the great amount of national resources that are put into teaching young people. I remember my very first day in Japan, a Saturday, and the kids of the family I was staying with got their school backpacks on and dutifully trotted off to school. I was confused -- school on Saturday? Yes, Japanese students did go to school (a half day, typically) on Saturdays. This is in addition to the after-hours schools, called juku, that most students attend to help them keep up with their studies (both of my elementary school-age kids attend juku schools now). Over the past fifteen years Japan's educators decided to let up on the kids, abolishing Saturday school attendance and adopting a policy of yutori kyoiku (translatable as "unhurried education") which aims to teach Japan's young people without placing so much pressure on them, leaving more free time for friends, outings with the family, and so on. The goal is laudable, but in reality, Japan's educational performance compared to other countries in Asia has taken a sharp dive, especially in areas like science and math, and now many are reexamining the relaxed educational goals. I doubt we'll see a return to Saturday school attendance, but it's important for a country like Japan with few natural resources to maintain its edge when it comes to educating its people.

Just as America has always had the Protestant Work Ethic to serve as a model for what hardworking people should aspire to, Japan has always valued kinben (keen-BEN), diligence and hard work, as an excellent trait for a person to adopt. By and large, this diligence is usually measured in terms of time rather than raw effort. Doing an hour or two of overtime each day is probably the norm for most Japanese companies, where employees show their hard work to their colleagues in a unit that everyone can easily recognize, time. The highest point of evolution for the concept of kinben is the tetsuya, the all-nighter, working so hard that you work all night long to finish your important project. If an employee in Japan works all night on a project, he will probably gain a lot of respect from his boss and coworkers.

Ask any gaijin living in Japan about dentists here, and you'll be sure to hear some complaints. By and large, the dental and medical world in Japan is quite advanced, but sometimes you see some things that give you pause. I knew a dentist who sterilized his instruments over an open flame, a giant candle that was burning while he was working on my teeth, and a friend had a dentist use a normal box cutter to drain an infection in his mouth, in lieu of a medical scalpel. These experiences are worrying, but the biggest problem with dentists in Japan is that it can take dozens of visits to complete routine dental work. Last year I had some dental work done that managed to take a full 18 months of regular visits to complete. I believe Japan's dentists take so long to work on teeth because of the way insurance is structured here -- they're only allowed to charge a certain amount to the system each day, so they spread it out as much as they can. It's horribly inefficient, but then, it's sad to say that inefficiency is an industry unto itself, which you can see in many areas, including parking attendants who direct you to parking spaces you could have found on your own, NHK employees who go around to every house in the neighborhood each month to manually collect the 2000 yen NHK fee, and so on.

If you're in the Dallas area, we hope you'll be attending A-Kon, one of the most vibrant and enjoyable anime conventions that has ever been. With an amazing 17 year history, you can experience a lifetime of fun compressed into three very enjoyable days of cosplay, anime and Japanese popular culture. The con is from June 9-11 this year and you can see more information on it here

Right before A-Kon I'll be at another interesting place: the Sex in Video Games conference in San Francisco, where I'll be speaking at one of the panels on Thursday, discussing Japan's unique bishoujo games, which we've been involved with since the beginning. If you'll be in the neighborhood, we hope see you at the conference, which will really be interesting. For information, see this page.

At J-List, we bring you our amazing Japanese T-shirts with original messages in kanji, which are aesthetically beautifully and cool to wear. We have a new T-shirt just for the girls today. which is great for anyone with a unique interest in Japan that they're proud of. The shirt says, "I like what I like, so get off my back!" (alternate translation, "I like what I like, and there's nothing I can do about it"), which is a slogan from a yaoi manga that we liked the sound of, so we put it on a T-shirt. A great design in American Apparel's "Vintage Soft" style, this is a great new offering for girls who are into some aspect of Japan that others may not be able to understand. On the site now, and really cute!

Monday, June 05, 2006

Election comparisons in Japan and California, Marie Antoinette's anime connection, and wow, a dollar buys so much!

It certainly is nice to be back home in San Diego for a brief vacation in between anime conventions, and it gives me a chance to compare the U.S. with life in my adopted country. Whenever it's election time in Japan, I usually do a post about how strange the country's democratic processes can seem to a foreigner -- candidates in loudspeaker cars, driving all around the city shouting "I will work hard for you!" and "Thank you for your support!" to the great annoyance of everyone, although this somehow manages to get them votes. California's primary elections are next week, so I'm getting a rare chance to experience the current trends in America's electoral system, and it's nearly as annoying. All week long we've been getting phone calls from very important people like Newt Gingrich, John Kerry and Gov. Schwarzenegger, telling us about important issues that we should be aware of for next Tuesday. The voices are just recordings, of course, although it's nice to imagine that we're important enough for all these famous politicians to call us and give us their opinions...

A wise gaijin once said, you've been in Japan too long when, on a visit home, you say "Wow, a dollar buys so much!" and are surprised to find everyone looking at you funny. I'm kind of having that experience now. Last night I went to Vons to get some beer, limes and various munchies -- I threw in some celery since it's very hard to get in Japan -- and proceeded to the cash register. A similar purchase back home would probably set me back 3000-4000 yen, so I pulled out two $20 bills, expecting it to cost about the same, but I was pleasantly surprised when the total came to under $15. Everything is relative, of course, but it's nice to be able to feel that things are priced moderately for a change.

It's always nice to check out what movies are showing here in the States as well, since, by and large, it will take 6-9 months for most of them to be released in Japan, except for some blockbusters that get distributed everywhere at the same time. I see that Lost in Translation creator Sofia Coppola (who played one of the handmaids to Queen Amidala in Star Wars Episode I, amazingly) had a new film at Cannes portraying the life of Maria Antoinette as a young girl. I immediately wondered if Sofia, who has had a lot to do with Japan during her life, might not have gotten some of her ideas for the film from the animation masterpiece The Rose of Versailles. One of the great classics of Japanese animation from the 1970s, it follows the history of the French Revolution as seen through the eyes of Oscar, one of the Palace Guards safeguarding the young Austrian queen. Oscar is a woman who was raised by her father as a boy since birth, and she is the bravest soldier in France. The bubbly character of young Marie from the anime series seems similar to the one portrayed in the new film, and it'd be interesting to know if Sofia Coppola is a closet fan of the anime series.

Way late, I know. But here are some pictures from the show in San Jose. Here is brand new J-List Mobile, a replacement for the also brand-new trailer that was so dishonorably stolen from our parking log a couple months ago.

Do you like our logo? On the other side, the rivets are accidentally placed in, er, an embarrassing place.

Pics from the con. This is Tatsuya Uesugi from Touch, a great costume that, sadly, fewer people will probably get than my Beru-Bara reference above. But Touch is the shit, man.

It's an anime show, there must be Stormtroopers present.

This guy was getting Glomped, but good.

Nice Sakura from Tsubasa Chroniclr.

A picture of Black Jack, and two smart-ass friends of mine in the background.

Ah, anime conventions are so much fun.

I really liked the video game corner. I tried my hand at the drum game, since I've played it and I live in Japan and all. 13 year old girl handed my ass to me, I was so embarrassed.