Friday, June 30, 2006

Back in the USA (and sleepy), English and my son's spelling, and a theory of macro-economics

I've made the hop from Japan to the U.S. once again, going from the world of sushi and bullet trains and the near-daily drizzle of Japan's Rainy Season to lovely San Diego, always a pleasure thanks to the near-perfect weather here (although today was a tad hot if truth be told). We're here to attend Anime Expo in Anaheim (or "Animeheim" as we like to call it around here), the most excellent anime convention in the world, held July 1-4. If you'll be at the show, we hope you'll come by and say hello! For information on the convention, see this page.

English is one of the hardest languages to learn because of its many conflicting rules for pronunciation, grammar and spelling, and the exceptions to those rules that abound at every turn. Hard as it is for someone to learn English in an ESL class in the U.S., it's much worse if you're trying to study while living in a place like Japan, where English is definitely a "foreign" language (as opposed to a "second" language, used in some fashion in daily life). My son attends an experimental elementary school in our prefecture which essentially teaches the normal Japanese curriculum, but with most classes in English rather than Japanese. Having class in English has been a great experience for my son, but spelling is still a chore, so he's come up with a way to keep his skills up: verbally pronouncing all the letters in words, like the usually silent "gh" in "enough" or the invisible consonant in "knife," to test his own spelling knowledge. The other day was my birthday and he wrote me a letter in really challenging English, thanking me for raising him and putting him in the new school, and promising to stop fighting with his sister and giving me grey hairs from stress. As a father, as well as a former English teacher, it was a very proud moment for me...

One theory of macro-economics says that countries should do things that they're especially good at and leave other jobs to nations with skills in those areas. For example, since China is able to manufacture goods cheaply, they should take charge of manufacturing, while Japan sticks to areas it's talented at, like designing advanced technology, engineering great products, and making extremely cute things like Domo-kun. Of course, pat theories like this don't stand up for long in the real world, which is why Japan engages in every kind of business imaginable, even if they don't make sense from a purely macro-economic standpoint. Agriculture is a big example of this, an incredibly inefficient endeavor when compared with the costs of growing food in other countries, yet one that's very important to the Japanese, who knew real starvation in the years during and after World War II, which is why they attempt to be self-sufficient when it comes to food (or, their main staple of rice, at least). As the population ages, fewer and fewer Japanese are interested in agriculture as career, so there are substantial tax breaks for those engaged in farming, to keep the base from disappearing. Because of this, you can sometimes see some people growing rice and other crops even in Japan's massive capital city of Tokyo, which really boggles the mind considering the cost of land there.

We do hope you'll be able to attend Anime Expo and see all the good things we've brought for you. If you can't make it, though, we've got a nice consolation prize: free shipping on all our PC dating-sim games to the U.S. and Canada (half price shipping for international customers) during the convention. This means it's a great time to check out our fabulous selection of bishoujo and yaoi PC games and choose some fun titles. Remember, you get 20% off if you buy 4 or more games together. This includes the brand new X-Change 3!

Went into the L.L. Bean store too. It's quite popular since the quality is good, whereas sometimes the stuff you buy in Japanese stores is not good. Especially for kids. L.L. Bean is excellent, my wife says.

Like any good company, they promote themselves with their version of the "two guys named Steve in a garage" legend.

On the way home, we stopped at a restaurant. This is the "men's room" symbol. A little freaky?

I found this one even weirder, for some reason.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Fun with my talking car, the act of reading Japanese, and new business ideas in Japan

First of all, we had a problem with our mail server, which caused Monday's emails to show up a day late for some readers. Very sorry about that.

I remember we bought a talking car back in 1984, a Chrysler that told us things like "a door is ajar" or "your headlights are on" -- and that was about it. Our Mazda MPV is much cooler, greeting me every morning and informing me of today's date, and also what "special day" it is. These interesting commemorative days include, for example "UFO Day" (June 24, from a major UFO sighting in Washington State in 1947), "Ice Cream Day" (May 9, after the founding of the first ice cream factory in Japan in 1869), "Natto Day" (July 10, because the numbers 7 and 10 sound like the name of Japan's famous fermented soybeans), "Arigato no Hi" (March 9, since "3 9" can be read "san kyu" or "thank you"), "Toilet Day" (Nov. 10, a day for thinking of how much benefit we gain from our, er, toilets), and "Married Couples' Day" (the 22nd of every month, since the numbers sound like the word for "married couple"). My car also tells me to drive carefully as I pull out of the driveway.

One of the great mysteries of learning Japanese was the physical mechanism of reading. The act of bringing written information into the brain is something we all take for granted, but when you live in a country like Japan where road signs are labeled in English only occasionally, just getting around can be a challenge. The first step in reading Japanese is mastering hiragana, a syllable-based writing system that uses simple characters to express sounds, for example three characters to express a word like maguro (まぐろ、tuna). Learning a language that wasn't based on the Roman alphabet was a big hump for me to get over, but after a week or so of quizzing myself with flashcards I got the hang of it. After learning katakana (a "mirror" of hiragana that's used for writing foreign words and names) comes the long, slow march of kanji, the characters that provide actual meaning in Japanese sentences. You could theoretically write Japanese in hiragana only, although it would be all but unreadable, since the eye has nothing to focus on (try reading The Hobbit in Japanese and you'll see what I mean). As you learn to read more, it's really a thrill when your brain gets used to ingesting the chunks of written Japanese just as it does for any other language.

One of the time-honored approaches to business in Japan is, look what crops up in the U.S. and Europe then adapt the business idea locally as quickly as you can. In the U.S., eBay may be the #1 auction site, but they were slow to move into foreign markets, allowing Yahoo to steal the top slot here. Dominoes brought the concept of home-delivered pizza to everyone, but Pizza Hut was able to build the largest network in Japan before Domino's could get established over here, and now they are the market share leaders. Recently I've been seeing companies trying to copy Netflix's DVD-by-mail business concept, allowing Japanese consumers to select DVDs online and then have them sent to them automatically in the mails. I guess there's a lot of success to be found in copycat businesses.

It's our pleasure today to announce today that X-Change 3, the long-awaited third anf final part of Peach Princess's top-selling PC dating-sim game, is in stock and shipping! The game features the further adventures of Takuya, the unfortunate 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, or will she study abroad in America and leave him forever? An extremely rich and exciting adventure, this is our first title published on DVD-ROM (due to the immense size of the game). Features game soundtrack and voice files for you to use freely, too.

We've been going to Karuizawa, the little town about 100 km from us that's kind of like, oh, a posh and stylish island far from Tokyo (I'm trying to think of what it might be like in Los Angeles terms -- San Luis Opispo?). In Karuizawa they have a mall with lots of American brands, stuff we can't buy easily anywhere else, like L.L. Bean. And a Lego Store, too!

This is actually a replica of the mall area we were standing in, recreated with Legos.

Here's the Shinkansen station. Karuizawa gets some of its mystique because the cool Shinkansen comes there, but no other normal train lines. Not sure why that adds to the status of the place, but it does somehow.

Oh, Fall has come! Look at the Lego leaves changing colors!

Here the Lego store, where we were standing. Right across from Eddie Bauer. To the right is the bottom of the mountain where little Lego people are skiing down.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Learning to count chopsticks in Japanese, the meaning of GOD HAIR & MAKE, and Japan's new yaoi boom

When you learn a language as different from English as Japanese is, some things are going to be challenging, such as the tendency for Japanese to leave the subject off a sentence, and sometimes the object and predicate, since they'd just get in the way. There are grammatical markers that define the subject, object, preposition and other parts of sentences, which helped me to "parse" the grammar of Japanese in an almost XML-like fashion (not that I knew what XML was back in 1987). Another unique area of learning Japanese are the "counters," the words you use when counting different objects based on their shape. If you're counting flat objects like sheets of paper, you use mai (ichi mai, ni mai, san mai, 一枚、二枚、三枚). For any long, cylindrical object, you use hon (ippon, ni hon, san bon、一本、二本、三本). (Roppingi, if you want to know, means "six trees" -- roku plus the hon/pon counter, and ki is Japanese for tree.) There are some difficult ones to get down -- for example, an umbrella is counted with hon/pon because it's long and cylindrical when closed, but when it's opened, it's in a different shape. How do you count it? Does a comatose body or freshly-killed corpse get counted with the same counter as the one for people? Incidentally, the counter for pairs of chopsticks is zen (no, not that zen, a totally different one, 膳 not 禅), which works out to be ichi zen, ni zen, san zen. Since knowing the proper way of counting pairs of chopsticks is somewhat archaic, I've always found that Japanese are shocked when a foreigner knows how to do it correctly. If you want to impress someone from Japan, pull this out on them and watch the surprise on their face.

You've been in Japan too long when, while driving by a new building with a sign that says GOD HAIR & MAKE, you know exactly what kind of establishment it is (a hair dresser that also does make-up). All languages have jokes or puns "hard wired" into them that are unique to that language -- I'm sure the famous "Who's on First?" comedy routine by Abbott and Costello could only work in English. The word kami can have three meanings (with appropriately differentiated kanji, of course), God, hair and paper (神, 髪 and 紙), which gives rise to little puns about God's Hair and the like. Another (bad) joke is related to counting words, above. The word for ribs is rokkotsu (roh-KOTSU、肋骨), which sounds to the ear like a counting word for "six bones" (六骨), so if you pretend to count someone's ribs and stop at six, it can be funny. Iruka means dolphin, but also "does [it] exist?" which causes learners of the language to make jokes like Iruka iruka? (Are there any dolphins?). Similarly, ikura refers to the salmon roe that tastes so good on sushi, but also "how much is this?" leading to Ikura ikura? (How much is the salmon roe?). Finally, rakuda means "camel" but also "it is comfortable," which means you can be sure to see TV commercials with camels relaxing while selling you some product. There, now you know some useless Japanese jokes.

Japan is certainly the land of the "boom," and when something starts to get popular, you'd better watch out because it can really take off. The newest trend this summer is supposedly megane dansei, (眼鏡男性) or "men with glasses," a wave of men going out of their way to wear attractive-looking glasses for the sharp, intelligent style it gives them. In the past, Japan has gone through several "glasses booms," generally centered around women, which saw stylish Tokyo females sporting the most bizarre-looking horn-rim Librarian-esque eyewear you can imagine, just because it had become fashionable. The Summer of 2006 may be time for men to take their turn in the center of svelte glasses fashion in Japan. Over the past 15 years I've often observed that men seem to be moving in on the territory traditionally occupied by women, with the rise of marketing of make-up and hair care products to men and magazines that appeal to the slightly effeminate, yaoi-esque side of males. I wonder if the summer's men-in-glasses boom is part of this larger trend?

Among the many hard-to-find Japanese products that J-List brings to you are the DVD releases of Yulia Nova, the fabulous Russian model who was discovered by Japanese photographer Satoshi Kizu. She's hugely popular here in Japan and all throughout the Internet, one of the most incredibly (and all-natural) models of the past generation. We're happy to announce three new Yulia Nova DVDs will be released soon, the dynamite Yulia & Friends series, which feature all-new footage of Yulia and other popular models appearing together. The region-free DVDs are completely mosaic-free as well. They new Yulia releases will be out in August, so preorder your copies now!

Here's a "Gambare" Daruma for Japan. I guess they're pretty cheap now...

If you're rooting for Brazil, here's your Daruma too!

My kids and I go to the onsen (OWN-sen, hot springs) quite often, and sometimes we eat at the little eating place they always have. Here's the shokken hanbaiki (食券販売機) from the place we went to over the weekend. One of the challenges to living in Japan is being able to put your money in the machine then read the little buttons and decide what you want quickly, since there's always a line of people angry that you're going to too slow.

Ah, the green tea and water machine. Couldn't have a restaurant and not have one of these.

I had the big beer, which is called biggu biiru (just kidding, it's just called a "Dai"), and edamame on the side. Not a bad combination.