Friday, June 23, 2006

Nostalgia and the Showa Era, a serious definition of "coincidence" and World Cup bad news

Like most people, the Japanese have a tendency to look back with fondness on bygone eras, which they often sum up with the word natsukashii (NOTS-ka-SHEE), which can be translated as "that makes me so nostalgic that I must look like one of those wide-eyed manga characters with a tear rolling out of my eye." Japanese usually get sentimental about the Showa Era (1925-1989), especially for the decades after World War II, seen as a Golden Age when life was much simpler and everyone worked together to rebuild the country and make it strong. Being an old school fan, I can tap into this wellspring of nostalgia through manga and anime, which I'm currently doing with Touch, the classic high school baseball story that I used to read back in college. It's the story of two twins, pitching ace Kazuya and his lazy twin brother Tatsuya, and their childhood friend Minami, who they both love. When Ka-chan is killed in a car accident, Ta-chan must put on the uniform and fulfill Minami's dream of taking their team to Koshien, the legendary High School Baseball championships held every August. I love the simplicity of the story -- no robots, esper powers, or alien invaders that were foretold in the Dead Sea Scrolls here -- and all the old stuff we don't have any more, from public phones with rotary dials to tabletop video games and record albums of the latest JPOP idol. If you want to experience Japan's Showa Era for yourself, we recommend Always, a great new film we've posted to the site which tells a story of Japan back during the construction of Tokyo Tower (region 2, full English subtitles included).

I'll teach you another Japanese word: guuzen (goo-ZEN), which means "coincidence." I don't know why, but there seems to be something about Japan that brings out the most unlikely coincidences, at least for me. On several occasions I've bumped into people I studied Japanese with at SDSU in Tokyo and Yokohama -- quite a feat, considering the fact that I live far from these places myself. The guy who lives next door to us just happened to decide to run for mayor in our city of 200,000, and won -- this proved helpful when it came time to ask NTT to upgrade our broadband connection, since we have the same last name as him and everyone assumes we're related. When racing manga/anime Initial D got popular in the U.S., I was surprised to learn that the mountain roads I'd been zooming through for years were the setting of the story. But the biggest guuzen of my life would have to be the fact that the city I just happened to come to live in was the home town of Touch creator Mitsuru Adachi, and his high school (the model for the school in the anime) was near where I used to teach English. While browsing an outstanding Touch site the other day, I got another shocker: Mr. Adachi also shares the same birthday as my wife. How many degrees of separation are involved here? It just boggles the mind.

Japan's hopes in the World Cup have come to an end with the unfortunate (but probably inevitable) 4-1 loss to Brazil. The game took place at 4 a.m., Japan time, and no doubt many thousands of fans stayed up to watch it as it unfolded. My son was among them, at a school sleepover event in which students brought sleeping bags and slept in the school so they could get up to cheer the Japan team on together. Congratulations to Brazil on the win, and good luck to the teams still in the game!

One thing that will no doubt be popular in Tokyo this summer is hats -- I like the Mickey Mouse one! on the left

There is 0% chance that the Japanese person buying this hat will take the time to read it and say, oh my, Arnold Palmer, the famous golfer! She'll just buy it for the design and not even consider what it says. This is why you see clothes with slogans like "hairy beaver" or "Heil Hitler" (as I've seen).

Long Beach, yeah! Totally meaningless!

Now we're starting to get stylish. Remember the post I made a few months ago on the children's clothes with Playboy bunnies on it. Of course, it's a meaningless symbol here, so why not?

Definitely, the Japanese have this
"design" thing sewn up tight.

Pony. Is that a famous brand? My Pretty Pony?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Japan's relationship to China and "Kampo" medicine, skills a foreigner in Japan needs, and all about tipping

Roughly speaking, Japan's historical relationship to China is similar to that of the West and ancient Rome and Greece: the Middle Kingdom has always served as a model for culture, literature and science, and to this day the average Japanese person has quite a lot of respect for China, short-term squabbles notwithstanding. When I got back from the U.S., my wife announced that she had bought some diet pills for me to take which were specially designed to burn the "internal" fat in my body, or something like that. I was skeptical, since she locks onto some new "magic bullet" for weight loss every few months, but she assured me that this time it was different, because the pills weren't medicine at all, but Kampo (漢方). A word that literally means "Chinese way," Kampo is the traditional herbal medicine of China, and it occupies an almost mythical place in the minds of the Japanese. Many products, from energy drinks to "male enhancers" to Yomeshu (a kind of medicinal form of sake loaded with Chinese herbs) advertise themselves as making use of the magical power of Kampo medicine to bring health to you. My Japanese wife, who is apt to say things like "Don't make fun of China, a country with 4000 years of history!" is definitely in the target market for many of these products. (Accupuncture is also part of the overall idea of healing the "Chinese way".)

There are many skills a foreigner needs if he wants to live in Japan. You need to learn the basics of the language, of course, including asking directions, since you will be lost more often than not your first year here. In accordance with the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951, gaijin in Japan are required to learn phrases like biiru o kudasai (beer, please) and hen na gaijin desu (I'm a strange foreigner). Another important skill is learning to speak in secret code so that others can't understand what you're saying. For a foreigner working as, say, an English teacher, this can usually be achieved by using extra-difficult English. If you wanted to make a comment on how cute a certain girl is but keep her from understanding, you might say "I am amorously affected by the member of the fairer gender standing off my starboard bow." The trouble is, you never know for sure how good their English might be. Once in a KFC, I made a comment to a friend about how the word "Colonel" -- kaanaru as the Japanese say it -- sounded like a slightly "ecchi" word (carnal), and I was surprised when the Japanese girl working the cash register said "Yes, I've often thought that" in perfect English (she'd grown up in Los Angeles). For all those times when you want to speak secretly in Japan, I recommend the old standby of 8-year-olds, Pig Latin, which will scramble any sentence to incomprehensibility in short order. I recently taught Pig Latin to my son, and he's embraced it as the coolest thing in the world, teaching the code to all his friends at school.

Japan is unique among industrialized nations in that the concept of tipping never caught on, and is in fact about as alien to people here as taking your shoes off before entering your house would be in the States. You can expect service with a smile wherever you eat (as a wise gaijin once observed, "in Japan, you know no one is horking in your food"), and if were to leave a tip on the table you can be pretty sure the staff would run after you to return the money to you. While it's certainly nice to not have to tip when eating out, there are times and I receive exceptionally good service and want to show my appreciation, but the lack of a custom of tipping makes this impossible -- it would actually be quite rude to even try in most cases. Near our house there's a miniature F-1 race track that has a nice Italian restaurant overlooking it -- apparently the owner loved F-1 so much that he built his own track just for fun, or maybe as a tax write-off. The restaurant has live jazz music several nights per month, and we take our kids to enjoy the performances. We love the music, but there isn't so much as a tip jar on the piano for us to show our thanks to the musicians who make our dinner so special.

J-List makes dozens of great anime, manga, fashion, toy, Japanese study and other magazines available to our customers who aren't lucky enough to live in Japan through our "reserve subscription" system. Basically, we'll send the newest issue of every magazine you want as it comes in, charging you for that issue only. There's nothing to pay in advance and you can cancel or change magazines at any time, so it's really a great way to sample all the great periodicals Japan has to offer. One item we recommend to all anime fans is Megami Magazine, a great mag that focuses on the beautiful characters found in anime and games. Each issue is bristling with posters and other cool free stuff, to the point where we think the editors must be trying to bankrupt their own company. We recommend it highly.

J-List has thousands of unique products from Japan, including products many people have never even seen. Often the Blogosphere will pick up on one thing or another and turn it into a surprise hit. One week it's the "Oppai Ball" and then it's "Ai in a Cup." Recently there was a storm of posting and cross-posting about our wacky Poop Hat, a soft, plush hat that looks like, well, poop. We've restocked the sold-out Poop Hat for you today!

The day before the Sex in Video Games conference I had some free time to bounce around San Francisco, which is always a treat.

I actually messed up. I was told that a store I needed to go was just up the road, so I walked, and walked, and walked. After a while I got stubborn and kept walking until I'd gone all the way to Fisherman's Wharf.

For lunch, I was weak and went for In n' Out, which is pathetic, I know, since there were about 10,000 better places to eat all around me. It was the "something that's really good that you can't get in Japan" factor.

I mean, they have hamburgers in Japan, but nothing that's really memorable. If you've never eaten at an In n' Out, it's really special -- their hamburgers are made with meat only, no worm filler. Their fries aren't coated with sugar to make them "golden brown" like at McD. Back in the "old days" (pre-1993 or so) they only had In n' Out (which is a family owned chain by the way) in the Los Angeles area, and we'd actually drive 2 hours from San Diego to Mission Viejo to get the stuff. Really, if you live in a state, or a country, where they don't have In n' Out, you need to try it once, at least. I recommend a Double Double with onions, that will set you up nicely.

And oh, Root Beer! Another thing you can't find in Japan for money or love, because it tastes like Salonpas to the Japanese (which it does).

I headed over to Pier 39, a fun play to wander around. Although it's, ahem, a little over-commercialized, it's still fun. There's a stupid little bar in my city called Pier 39, and every time I pass it I laugh out loud. There's also a bar called NASA. Bwa ha ha.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Benefits from Japan's homogeneous culture, drawbacks to living in Japan, and the Japanese futon defined

Japan is, by and large, quite a homogeneous place. I've travelled from Sapporo to Hiroshima and have seen much of the country, but except for regional differences in food, dialect and weather-dictated architecture, it's surprising how uniform modern Japan can appear, at least to my lowly gaijin's eyes. An elementary school in Tokyo is very likely to look similar to one in Niigata and in Okinawa, and things like roads are apt to be pretty much the same no matter where you go, too. It's not like in the U.S., where culture on the two coasts can be as different as night and day, with large, easy-to-heat school buildings in Maryland and sprawling, open schools in California, and funny things called "turnpikes" in Pennsylvania (never figured out what those were). In some ways, the monoculture that you see in Japan extends to the people, too. This is a country where 98% of the population seems to believe, without ever having a conscious thought on the subject, that they are of identical stock, with black hair, "black" (brown) eyes, and universal samurai ancestry. In reality, there is quite a lot of variation in the features of Japanese people: lighter colored hair, differently shaped faces, more or less body hair, eyes that or more narrow (hitoe, with one crease in the eyelid) or less narrow than average, and darker or lighter skin. While people here would be insulted if you suggested that "all Japanese look alike" to foreigners (although I've been mistaken for other gaijin more times than I can count), the tendency for people here to think of all Japanese as coming from the same stock is a useful social engine sometimes called the Myth of Japanese Uniformity, sort of the exact opposite of Canada's Cultural Mosaic. While the concept might be alien to alien to your or me, the overall effect is a positive one, I think. The idea is, since the Japanese don't "see" differences in their own people, they can get along on a more even plane without a lot of discrimination, which is good for a country that values harmony like this one.

I like living in Japan -- it's a great country where the people are honest and friendly and things are never boring. You can't pick your neighbors though, and living within spitting distance of North Korea is really not at the top of my list of favorite things. There's been a lot of buzz about NK being about to do a test launch of a Taepodong-2 long-range missile soon, which is causing nervousness around here. In 1998, they shot a missile launched a satellite over Japan, just to show they could do it. Considering that North Korea's missiles employ Sony Playstation 2 chips that were smuggled into the country (or so I've heard), we're less than thrilled about living right in the flight path between Pyongyang and Tokyo. If a missile falls short of its goal it will land right on our heads -- that's just not fun.

Do you sleep in a bed or on a futon? Both are popular in Japan, although the trend is definitely towards beds among young people, as houses become more Westernized and Japanese get older. The traditional way of sleeping in Japan is on a futon, essentially a large sleeping pad that can fit one adult. They fold up into three sections for easy storage -- essential in a country with such a low space-to-people ratio -- and are useful to keep around when guests drop by unexpectedly. Futons must be hung out to dry every few days or they'll accumulate unhealthy moisture inside, and the image of a hanging futons in the sun and beating the dust out is a classical image of married life in Japan. When I was in college, a lot of students owned Western-style "futons" (foo-TAWN, said with a Texas drawl, rather than f'-TONE as it would be pronounced in Japanese) that were usually comprised of a large stuffed sleeping pad and a wooden frame, but like California Rolls, Midori Sours and fortune cookies, this is a completely made-in-the-the-West concept.

At J-List, we strive to bring you something fresh and new from Japan with every update. We carry a wide range of really cool authentic Japanese geta shoes and other types of sandals, with sizes and styles for men and women. Today we've added some really cool large wooden "geta" made out of blocks of wood for an unmistakable look that's great for cosplay or just wearing around town. The unique sound of the wood on the pavement will make you think you're in Kyoto. We've got basic wooden geta sandals great for any use, with white or black straps, then we have a deluxe "super" geta that's extremely tall, great for either wearing or displaying.

Okay, I lied, a few more pics from A-Kon. There was a kind of "museum of Robotech" at the Harmony Gold table, and although it's largely unrepetant crap, I grapped my trusty camera. This here's Robotech Art 1, which spawned a generation of otaku. Robotech, of course, is the "zero level anime" for modern anime fandom in the U.S., the show that really fulfilled people desire to see a well developed story with plot threads, characters dropping dead left and right, love triangles, and of course, the total descruction of the Earth at the hands of aliens. This show was anime's big break, the "Star Wars" (if I may be so bold) that showed the light at the end of the tunnel for American mediocrity on television.

More stuff, a lot of which was made for the South American market, which is kind of puzzling. The pic to the left is the Robotech Movie, one of the most awful blights on the face of anime fandom in general. Which isn't to say I don't own a copy.

Macross, a show that I love quite separately from Robotech, is kind of funny since it was so good (fantastic story, great characters, the best tech for its era) yet so bad, too (poor funding leading to some episodes that are practically unwatchable now). This is the worst Macross episode, Phantasm.

Somebody timed their shopping trip to Pic n' Save right, that's for sure.

Ah, the memories never stop... Make them stop!!!!

So, do we have any members of the Robotech Generation reading the blog?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Peter's recommendations for karaoke, how kanji works, and where Japanese company names come from

I'm a fan of karaoke, and if there's a microphone nearby, you can bet I'll be willing to pick it up and belt out a song or three. Learning to sing songs in Japanese is a handy thing for a gaijin to do, since it's fun and it helps you learn the language using the "do anything to get attention from cute Japanese girls" technique (which we'll call the Social Interaction Method of Language Learning to make it sound more legitimate). By and large, the more unique a given song is, the more points you will get for learning it, and I always made it a point to learn lots of enka songs, the Japanese version of country music. Another number I always try to sing when I'm at karaoke is Funk Fujiyama by Kome Kome Club, a hilarious song that parodies the odd "nihongo" that foreigners are famous for using, like saying Fujiyama for Mt. Fuji (the correct name is "Fuji-san") or kore ikura? ("how much is this?"). The chorus to the song is great:

Everybody samurai, sushi, geisha
Beautiful Fujiyama, ha ha ha!
Konnichi wa, sayonara, kore ikura?
Kamikaze, harakiri, ha ha ha!

To hear the song, go to here (click the play button in the upper left hand corner of the page). Warning, may require some funky plug-in.

A few months ago I was surfing eBay and happened across a copy of my first-ever textbook, Foundations of Japanese Language by Soga, and I snapped it up for the sheer natsukashii (nostalgic) value. Thumbing through the pages, I fondly recalled my days of studying the language at SDSU. The class was overflowing with students who wanted to take Japanese, and the teacher had a great method for deciding which students could join the class: if you wanted in, you had to learn hiragana in a week. In addition to hiragana (the "basic" syllable-based writing system) and katakana (used for writing foreign words like "amenity communicator"), a lot of time goes into learning to read and write kanji, the Chinese characters that provide actual meaning in a sentence. While kanji can look extremely difficult to Westerners, there is a lot of logic to it. Kanji characters have "radicals," or kanji characters embedded inside them which provide a way to group them together. For example, things that fall from the sky like snow or lightning have the character for "rain" inside them. One basic kanji shape that is used in a lot of characters is "tera," meaning temple. If you add the radical that refers to people to the left of this character, you get "samurai"; put the character for "cow" on and left and you get "special"; and with the radical for "sun" on the left, you get the word "time." It's not a perfect system, of course, but when four thousand years old your writing system reaches, work as well, it will not.

Studying the names of Japanese companies can be interesting. For example, I'll bet you never knew that Kyocera is short for "Kyoto Ceramics." The number one car company in Japan is Toyota, which is located in Toyota City, Aichi Prefecture (near Nagoya), although the company came first, and the city changed its name later because the company was based there. The number two Japanese car company is Honda, founded by Soichiro Honda to make motorcycles after the end of World War II. Mazda, which is largely owned by Ford, is really called Matsuda in Japan. Datsun's name has an interesting story -- DAT were the initials of the three founders, and they considered the company they were founding to be their son, making the name DATSON. However, "son" (with a long vowel, so that it rhymes with bone), means "loss" or "disadvantage" in Japanese, so they changed it to "sun," a much more cheerful word. Datsun was later bought out by one of its distributors, Nissan (which simply means "Made in Japan"). Several modern Japanese companies grew out of Japan's "zaibatsu" (trade cartels) which had existed for hundreds of years, the three biggest being Mitsubishi, Mitsui, and Sumitomo.

We're extremely glad to be able to announce that the upcoming PC dating-sim game X-Change 3 has finally gone "golden master" and will be shipping soon. This is the third chapter in the popular. The long-awaited game features the further adventures of Takuya, the unfortunate Japanese university student who'd been changed into a girl twice before through bizarre chemistry accidents. This time, it's the fault of Kouji, who's been in love with Takuya's female half for years and has finally gotten his hands on a potion to change him into a girl again. Takuya has to change back in one week or less, or the transformation in his cells will become permanent. Will he turn to the capable Asami-senpai to help him change back, or gamble on the school's mad scientist, Chisato? Will he be able to save his love with Asuka? What well-known characters from the past games will he encounter, and what new adventures will he have? An extremely rich and exciting adventure, this is our first title published on DVD-ROM (due to the size of the game, very big). Features game soundtrack and voice files for you to use freely, too. You can still preorder it and get free shipping when it's released!

More images from A-Kon, before I move on. This was a really nice keyboard...really nice keyboard indeed.

Whenever we're in Dallas, we always hit Sonny Bryan's, which is an incredibly delicious barbecue house. Seriously, if you fancy yourself a fan of meat in any form, try to go to this place (in the West End part of town), it's really amazing.

The only complaint is that they don't have Shiner Bock anymore, which we consider to be quite an insult. We have to settle for the inferior Ziggy Bock, made by -- ugh, Anheiser-Busch.

The barbecue sauce at Sonny's is also to die for. Served hot in a Corona bottle.

Then it was time for me fly home, or rather, sit for 6 hours while they got a replacement for the plane that was broken, then fly home. I ate frozen yogurt, which is one of those "just not available in Japan" things.

I also looked with amazement at Lipton's green tea. While the idea of sweetening green tea is as strange as lying on a bed in a house with dirty shoes on, I will say that I didn't hate this.

Hanging out in the airport, I found a kiosk where the guy was using his PC to play Rogue. I was amused.

Oops, more quotes of note from the show, which I'd had written down for no particular reason. Then I'll be done, I promise.

"Drape me...drape me, my friend." - closing time silliness, when we drape our booth.

"Nine hours is a long time to stand here, by any...something..." - me, trying to speak coherently after Saturday's selling day.

"What, they actually have Oriental Chicken Salad in the Orient?" - Friend Josh. Yes, they do but only at Pizza Hut.