Friday, July 21, 2006

Some useful phrases for making a good impression in Japanese, Japan and the sweet potato-bank ATM connection, and fun at the San Diego Comicon

The San Diego Comic Con is underway, and although it's just gotten started, we're tired already, however it's the good kind of tired. We spent Thursday greeting about a jillion fans and selling our many unique products, from dating-sim games to our wacky Japanese T-shirts and hoodies to Domo-kun plush toys and more. Incidentally, I made a mistake on the booth number in the last update -- we're actually in booth 229, all the way to the right side (when facing) of the convention center, right in the middle of Anime Alley. For more info on the show, see this page. We hope to see you at the show, or if not, on the J-List website!

The all-purpose polite Japanese phrase domo is a handy word for a foreigner to know, as it can be used as an abbreviation for the correct phrase in almost any situation, even if you're not sure what that phrase would actually be. Literally meaning "very" (as in, domo arigato gozaimasu, thank you very much), the domo expression can be used to mean hello, goodbye, I haven't seen you in a long time, thanks for taking care of that problem for me the other day, and so on. Domo-kun, the popular mascot of NHK, Japan's public broadcasting network, serves partially to make kids aware of how important it is to be polite to others, hence his name. As usual, Japan is very onion-like, and you can be sure that peeling away the layers of politeness will bring on more complexity. While the nuances of Japanese courtesy can be about as confusing as parsing TCP/IP headers -- there are verbs that change form depending on whether the subject of the sentence is an honored guest who must be raised up to a higher level, or yourself or a member of your "in group," requiring a self-effacing, humble verb -- you can make a good impression by learning a few simple phrases.

One such elementary phrase that comes in handy in many situations is ojama shimasu (oh-JAH-MAH shee-MAHS), which basically means "sorry for intruding" and is what you say when you enter someone else's home. Kids often forget to say this when they visit a friend's house, and I always go out of my way to make sure my kids say it to their friends' mothers when visiting (the sight of an American lecturing his kids on how to speak polite Japanese is an amusing one in my neighborhood). Another important phrase is onegai shimasu (oh-NEH-GAI shee-MAHS), which just means "please" (or more literally, "I request it of you"), always useful to know. Finally, there are itadakimasu and gochiso-sama deshita (ee-TAH-DAH-kee-MAHS and go-chee-SOH-SAH-MAH DESH-ta), which are used at mealtimes and essentially mean "I'm going to receive the gift of this food" and "thanks for a delicious meal," respectively. While the two phrases are used in most every household (the latter corresponds to "May I please be excused?" in that kids aren't allowed away from the table unless they say it first), they're especially important in situations where politeness is needed. If someone takes you out to eat and they're picking up the tab, it's especially important to use the latter phrase to thank them for dinner.

Japan can sure be a perplexing place. It's a highly advanced nation in which digital technology is often far ahead of other countries, and yet in the autumn there's no finer sound than the baked sweet potato man, driving his truck around as he sells stone-baked sweet potatoes while singing his baked sweet potato song. Bank ATMs are another perplexing area. We take 24-hour automated tellers for granted in the U.S., but when I came to Japan, I was surprised to see "cash corners" (as they are called here) close at 7 pm weekdays, earlier on Sunday. The reason? By law, there has to be a bank employee inside all "automated" tellers, so it's difficult to keep them open at all hours. Once I was trapped in Hokkaido during Golden Week, unable to get money out of my account for several days because the ATMs were closed along with the banks. In contrast, a friend of mine was able to get money out of his account in Sweden while living in rural India with his normal bank card and PIN. Another ATM difference: you can only get a few hundred dollars out at machines in the U.S., but in Japan, it's possible to withdraw up to $30,000 at a time.

Since not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to attend the San Diego Comicon, we're going to give you a nice surprise: free shipping (U.S./Canada) or half-price shipping (for international customers) on all our amazing PC dating-sim games, which makes this a great opportunity for you to spend some time browsing the J-List website and bag a few "H" games. Why not take this chance and get all the great English-translated PC dating-sim games you've been wanting to buy?

More pics from our trip to Santa Cruz (since my camera battery was dead, making it impossible for me to take pics at the Comicon today). Nice picture of our new baby Nicholas and his favorite cousin.

We had to do the mission, of course, which was a really beautiful one. This was the mission in Santa Cruz, one of the oldest in California.

This mission as founded by Junipero Serra, who happens to be the guy who founded my high school, since it's named after him. Or something like that, anyway. (Just kidding.)

Fr. Serra is actually buried in the mission. I'm not sure if he is below this stone, or elsewhere in the compound.

A bible from 1568 that Serra probably used. Kind of cool to try to read the Latin. Speaking of Latin, has anyone seen Elfin Lied, the most coolest anime to come along in a while? They get major kudos for having an opening credit song sung entirely in Latin.

A reconstruction (?) of Fr. Serra's humble room.

The garden outside was also beautiful, and hopefully restful for those interred here.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

All about bowing, something America has that Japan does not, and a strange buzzing sound

Can you hear that? The buzzing sounds you hear are the murmers of excitement being uttered by everyone who's going to be at the San Diego Comicon this weekend, July 19-23. J-List will be there in a big way, of course, and we sure hope you'll be at the show, too -- come see us in Anime Alley in the 500 aisle (I think that's where we'll be -- anyway, just look for the Domo-kun plush toys). For information on the show, see this page.

You know you've been in Japan too long when you bow while speaking to someone on the telephone. It's just one of those local mannerisms that you can't help but pick up, like doing the swishing "come here" wave (which to Western eyes looks like "get away from me"), or "slasher hand" as you move through a crowded room. The Japanese bow in many formal and "sort of" formal situations, but like the politeness that's built into the language itself, there are many subtle layers. If you were to meet a person you work with on the street, you might slightly lower your head and utter that all-purpose Japanese polite phrase, domo -- a pretty casual greeting. Meeting with a representative from a company you do business with is obviously a more formal affair, and you would show respect by bowing lower and for a longer period of time as you exchange meishi, or business cards. Funerals are extremely solemn, and when the father of J-List's accountant passed away, my wife gave me careful instructions about exactly how to bow when giving my condolences to him and his family.

There are many differences between Japan and the U.S. One of them is that the U.S. has inflation, while Japan does not, or not much, anyway. The accepted wisdom is that "Japan has very low inflation, but the prices are high to begin with," and while this statement seems odd when you hear it, in practice it's proven quite accurate. In the fifteen years I've lived in Japan, prices have changed very little -- it used to cost $16 to take the train from our city into Tokyo, and now it's up to $18.50, and the 350 ml Coke that used to cost $1 is now $1.20. It probably sounds nice to be paying 1995-era prices for many products, but there are downsides, too. First, gas is plenty expensive, the equivalent of $4.50 a gallon, although Japanese drivers don't feel the pinch as much as they otherwise might since they don't put 50 miles on the car just going to the mall like I'm doing now in California. The other downside of the lack of inflation is slow or no growth in salaries, which leads to a general economic malaise since consumer spending can't push the country forward like it does in the States. A major part of the reason why inflation is hard to find in Japan is that land prices have fallen every year since the bursting of the economic bubble back in 1989 -- they've down to half what they were at their height, which is bound to create more than a little economic suckage.

J-List sells our world-famous wacky Japanese T-shirts, with cool slogans in kanji and other original designs that will really make you stand out in a crowd. Our newest shirt is one that customers have requested often, a version of our best-selling "Looking for a Japanese Girlfriend" design, but on a stylish fitted girly tee, rather than our normal men's T-shirts. It's very kinky, looks great, and we're sure that you or someone you know would look super in it! Why not browse all our amazing Japanese T-shirts and hoodies today?

We continued up the mountain. Chug chug chug...

One member in our group didn't like the loud noises the train made, although riding in a train built in 1912 was pretty cool, I thought.

At the top was...trees, and more trees. These were some of the most beautiful things I've seen. Roaring Camp and the mountain it sits on is one of very few spots that had never been logged, so the trees were all pristine, from prehistoric times.

It was really amazing, seeing all these trees, which stretched back to 3000 years ago.

Really, if you're in this area you can't not take this trip. It was really fun, a great way to respect nature. I could really see how Indians (and Japanese) revered the kami that lived in these old, beautiful trees.

Monday, July 17, 2006

My Narita Reconsideration, a very useful Japanese mantra, and an important virtue for Japanese to have

Like Tokyo Disneyland, the New Tokyo International Airport is not located in Tokyo, being situated in Narita City, Chiba Prefecture, about an hour's train ride from Japan's capital. Back in the 1960s, Haneda Airport became unable to handle the country's growing air traffic, and the government made plans to build a new airport in Chiba to handle the International side of things. The trouble is, no one consulted the farmers of the then-sleepy shrine town of Narita beforehand, and a massive fight over whether the nation has the right to force citizens to sell their land for the common good ensued, with plenty of violent protests by the farmers who didn't want to be told what to do. The idea of "eminent domain" was not an established legal concept in Japan at the time, and the case is still not completely resolved. Ever since the 1980s (read: ever since Japan has been exerting a major cultural influence on the outside world), Narita has been the setting for the final scene of many a manga, anime or TV drama, including several that I used to study Japanese with. In all of these scenes, the unique metal tile ceiling of the Narita departure terminal (which you can see on the J-List site) can be seen. Every time I step foot inside the airport I look up at that ceiling, remembering the many emotional scenes that had unfolded there before.

Ceiling at Narita Airport

I talked about kokuminsei (if you want kanji, 国民性) last time, the short list of features that ties each of us to our home country. Another facet of this "national personality" in Japan is the widely-used mantra shikata ga nai (仕方がない、sh-kah-tah ga NAH-ee), which translates as "it can't be helped" and is used by Japanese whenever they face a difficult situation that they feel powerless against. Don't like the current policies the government is adopting? Is there some aspect of society that you dislike? Just say shikata ga nai, or its more common version, sho ga nai (しょうがない, "there's nothing I can do about that"), and you'll feel better. It's really the perfect excuse -- you can even say shikata ga nai about stupid foreigners who think Japanese say shikata ga nai too much. In a country that crams half the population of the U.S. into an area the 1/25 the size, getting along is very important, and I guess these magic words help facilitate that harmony. On the other hand, there are times when people could do something about a particular problem, be it racism or sexism or the government's wasting money on needless public works projects, but people are so used to saying that nothing can be done about a problem that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A similar concept is the idea of gaman (gah-MAHN), which means to endure that which you can't change. The ability to tolerate a bad situation without complaint is considered a very good quality for Japanese to have, and much of life in Japan involves sucking it in and putting up with the little things we wish were different. Apartments in Tokyo, often re-branded with the Japanese-English term "mansion" to make them sound more grandiose, are too small to comfortably raise a family. Cities are urban jungles, prices for many necessary products are high, the population of the country is projected to be just 27 at the end of the current millennium, and our local bank pays 0.02% interest per year on a 1-year CD. The only thing you can do when faced with such adversity is gaman, just put up with it without complaint, or you'd go crazy. As with the phrase shikata ga nai, which helps Japan get along more harmoniously but also causes people to fail to take action when it's called for, gaman is both a stoic virtue as well as the source of problems. If you've got a pregnant wife and the restaurant manager apologizes that there isn't a no smoking section for you to sit in, as happened to me years ago, it's definitely not a gaman situation.

Here are today's "really cool products" that I thought were especially noteworthy. Note: the J-List links below may be for adult products and should probably be considered "not safe for work." To see all the J-List products, check out J-List or the updated products link.

I'm up here in the Santa Cruz area seeing some family (I love the Internet, it lets me work anywhere!), and we went to a grand place called Roaring Camp Railroad, a mountain with old growth redwoods that were just great to see.

Going through the parking lot. I stopped counting Honda Odyssey's (Odysseies?) when I got to 14. We were driving one, too.

They had a barbecue place and a general store with fun stuff, and various things for kids to do that was old west-style. The highlights were the path through the redwood trees as well as the trip up the mountain in a 1912 steam train.

This is a tree that had lived something like 3000 years. You could put your finger on the points where Rome was founded, when the Magna Carta was signed. I love doing stuff like that, touching really old things and see what vibes I get.

Here's the World Famous Tourists, puffing their way up the mountain. What was waiting for us? I'll post next time...