Friday, July 28, 2006

Culture shock related to cars, subtleties of language, and all about Japanese pocket tissue

When I first got to Japan, I had plenty of culture shock related to auto- mobiles. Cars are very important to the Japanese, and in all cities except for the largest ones, a car is really required to get anything done, just as in the States. Auto theft is quite uncommon in Japan, so it's not at all rare to see someone leave his beautiful Nissan Fairlady Z parked in front of the combini (convenience store) with the engine running. The idea that his car might be stolen just doesn't enter into the thinking here, so it's perfectly safe. Japanese cars have the steering wheel on the right side, as in England and Australia, and the Japanese have perfected the art of starting the car without getting in it, since the ignition is easily accessible on that side of the vehicle. When stopped at a light at night, it's considered good manners to turn your headlights down to "park" so you don't blind the person in front of you, and when someone lets you go ahead of them in traffic, flashing your emergency lights at them once or twice conveys your thanks -- although this is done by polite Tokyo drivers, not Gunma locals, who have bad driving manners. Japanese love their cars, and there are many interesting products that allow drivers to deck their vehicles out, including bizarre and interesting accessories, gaudy air fresheners, and flashing lights that are great for picking up girls.

I've talked before about how languages reflect the personalities of the people who speak them, and vice-versa. English speakers are direct -- usually saying "yes" or "no" rather than speaking in more subtle shades of grey as the Japanese do -- in part because the language is set up that way. Japanese is a very indirect language, with the subject and even the object often omitted from sentences because both the speaker and listener usually know what is being talked about, which at times can be confusing. If character A says they love vanilla ice cream but leaves this word unstated, character B might get confused and think that they themselves are the object of character A's affection, a basis for may misunderstandings in anime. Another vehicle for indirectness is the passive voice, that bane of high school English teachers, used infrequently in English, but quite common in Japanese. If the boss made a bonehead decision that was a bad idea for the company, you might complain about him in English directly, e.g. "The boss upstairs decided that we should contract with a Russian spam company to increase website traffic." In Japanese, where you'd be less likely to take your boss to task in front of others, passive speech would likely be used, to avoid naming the person responsible, e.g. "It's been decided that..."

If you came by our booth at the San Diego Comicon, we probably handed you some Japanese pocket tissue. One of the most popular methods that companies have to advertise their services to consumers, printing pocket tissue with advertising on it is a staple in many industries, including home remodeling companies, banks and the high-interest finance companies that have become so popular since the bursting of Japan's economic bubble. When we looked for a way to tell people about our little Japan-based web shop, we naturally turned to the famous Japanese pocket tissue, since it's universally convenient -- you never know when you're going to need tissue -- and totally Japanese. We give pocket tissue with almost every order, too, in every case where the square shape of the tissue won't damage your order (such as an order of thin magazines, which might be bent by us including a tissue packet inside). So if you want to get some great pocket tissue from Japan, make an order today! (We also have a few types of tissue on the site, such as Domo-kun

J-List genuinely wants to spread interest in Japan in all it's mysterious forms. For those who'd like to learn to read and write Japanese, the starting place is hiragana and katakana, the two basis syllable-based writing systems used in the language. We've got a great new set of study cards that make it easy to learn hiragana and katakana using visual cues, equating a kana character with a picture that helps you memorize it. Check it out now!

Whenever a convention ends, there is the inevitible pack-down that must be done. Here are pictures of the pack-down at Comicon, in case you want to see. This is Chancee, our most excellent employee from San Diego, who sadly, is leaving us to back to her home in Texas.

It's a lot more lonely after all the crowds have gone.

This is the J-List Mobile, our handy F-150 truck with trailer that we bought this year.

The reason we make sure to put our logo on the trailer is, our last trailer got stolen right after we bought it. That really sucked.

Another view of the "accidental" rivet.

The last image you're likely to see on a Comicon advertisement. Well, goodbye, Comicon 2006. We'll see you in 2007.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

I sure know how to keep busy. The San Diego Comicon ended just two days ago, but I'm already several hundred miles away, at the Grand Canyon. I'm taking a much-deserved vacation after our hard convention season this year, touring in an RV with my mother and my two kids, who just flew in from Japan. We're having great fun near the South Rim, doing very "American" things like eating hot dogs and beans and making s'mores (and with real graham crackers, too, not saltines like they use in Japan). It's a challenge, keeping the kids entertained in the middle of hot, hot Arizona, but we're having a blast so far...

I've learned something about my own country so far on this trip, at the campgrounds we've been parking our RV at each night: in addition to folks from all corners of the US of A, we've met people from such far-flung places as Germany, Israel and the U.K. It seems that a popular way for foreign visitors to see the "real America" is to rent an RV and hit the road. It's been interesting, talking with people from countries like the Netherlands about what they've seen in this great, wide country, and they're always surprised to meet an American who's an ex-pat in another country. Since people in most other countries pay a lot more for gas than we do in the States, I'm sure the fuel required to drive an RV through the U.S. looks reasonable by comparison.

Most of us know the name Americus Vespucius, the explorer and mapmaker who coined the phrase "New World," and how his name came to be placed on maps representing North and South America. Japan got its current name through a very indirect route. The early name for Japan used by European countries was Cipangu, which and the country was mentioned in the tales of Marco Polo (something the Japanese are no doubt thrilled with, knowing their penchant with making a good impression on Westerners). Eventually this morphed into Zipang, and eventually, the modern Japan in the English language. In Japanese, the name of Japan is either Nihon or Nippon (both are correct). Written in kanji (日本), the name means "origin of the sun," which is a fairly reasonable name since the sun appears to come from Japan, when seen from China, and they didn't know much about those things back then.

Back in the Edo Period, there were four castes in Japanese society: warrior (samurai), farmer, artisan and merchant, with merchants at the bottom of the rung, despite their actual position of importance as movers of the economy. There seem to be similar castes in Japan today, which might include such groups as salarymen (full-time employees of private companies), providers of skilled services like carpenters, farmers, and Japanese public employees. The latter group, called komuin (KOH-mu-in), are an interesting part of society here, consisting of every national, prefectural or local employee, every fireman, every policeman, every tax collector, and every educator at any level. Postal employees used to fall into the komuin category, but Prime Minister Koizumi has privatized the post office, essentially making it a publicly mandated private organization. Responsible for administering Japanese laws, collecting taxes, granting permits for various activities, issuing marriage licenses and generally making Japan run smoothly, komuin are in theory like public servants in the U.S., and yet quite different. Unlike the private sector, where companies must work hard and show results, Japan's public employees enjoy incredible stability, and theirs is the last segment of society with de facto lifetime employment in Japan. Young people who want the comfort of the stablest possible job and a long, steady climb up the social ladder aspire to pass the difficult tests that allows you to work as a public employee, although of course, if your parents are friends with your local city councilman he may be able to get you a job even if you haven't passed the test -- Japan is nothing if not flexible. While Japan's public employees provide a solid white-collar backbone of stability for the country, there are a lot of complaints about lack of fiscal restraint in Japan's public sector. For example, despite the decade-long recession in Japan, our prefecture found the money to build a 32-story skyscraper-style prefectural office that cost hundreds of millions to erect yet does nothing but provide government employees with a beautiful view. Before starting J-List, I had the opportunity to work as a komuin in my city for a few months, and I learned a lot from the experience (including that I didn't want to have a life that was that stable).

More pics from Comicon. Hey, I've seen that shirt before!

We are always retiring older J-List shirts for new ones, and so we have quite a lot of older shirts. This is one, and this guy wears it proudly as an "old school" J-List fan.

We always get a lot of comments on our banners, which were designed by Naomoto Sakaki or the Borderline series. We get plenty of offers to buy them, although they're not for sale.

This guy was walking around in a Pocky costume.

This girl was so hot, I thought for a moment I was at the AVN show in Las Vegas. She's holding the Domo-kun plush that was such a hit at the show. Bummer that my Treo decided to put an artifact in the picture.

I liked this shirt, too.

And this one, with Space Invaders printed into the shirt.

Isn't this the coolest thing in the world? I love the Clone Wars-style redesigns of the Star Wars characters.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The end of Comicon again, thoughts on math and the abacus, and strategies for communication

It's that time of year again: the crowds have gone home, the D.C. Comics banners have been pulled down, and the giant inflatable Pikachu has been deflated. The San Diego Comicon has come to an end, and we're all so tired, we feel like we've climbed Mt. Fuji. There is nothing like this convention anywhere in the world: a sprawling room that's easily ten times the size of Echo Base on Hoth, filled with all manner of geek culture, and there were well over 100,000 attendees this year. We had a great show, shook a lot of hands and sold a lot of Totoro T-shirts. If you came by to say hi, thanks!

In addition to greeting fans and talking about the wacky things from Japan we carry on the J-List website, I completed a lot of purchases for customers. Two T-shirts here, three packs of Black Black there, and did you want all three of the X-Change games? I had to do a lot of calculation in my head, which can really be challenging, since I'm not very good at doing math on the fly. The general consensus among Japanese I've talked to is that Americans usually aren't very good at math, and in my case this is certainly true. While trying to figure the total for some loose socks and Domo-kun toys I found myself envying my Japanese wife, who always seems able to do complex calculations in her mind with perfect accuracy. Part of the reason she can calculate so quickly is no doubt due to her years learning the soroban, or abacus, a complex system of beads that makes all kinds of addition and multiplication a snap. My wife has the equivalent of a "black belt" with the device, and can actually do calculations on an "air abacus," moving her fingers in mid-air and imagining where the beads would be to get the total. Sadly, it seems that abacus skills are slowly falling by the wayside in the current generation, as fewer and fewer kids are going to the special juku schools to learn how to use an abacus.

Communicating with people from a different country can involve making use of communication strategies to get your point across. These strategies take many forms, from hand signals to indicate an item on a menu to using non-sequitors to feign comprehension at times to keep the flow of a conversation from grinding to a halt -- I've actually done this while getting sloshed with British friends in Japan when I couldn't quite tell what they were talking about. I have a gaijin friend who's a full professor at a Japanese university, and he actively avoids using proper keigo, or formal polite Japanese, going out of his way to make some mistakes in his speech when talking with the other professors. The reason, he says, is to keep the staff of his university from knowing how fluent his Japanese is, since they might pile unwanted translation work on him if they knew of his linguistic abilities. Plus he wants to remain humble and raise up his Japanese colleagues: although he could pass level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, the primary test for students of the language, he avoids taking this step, since most of the professors he works with haven't passed their level 1 of the "Eiken" test (the corresponding test for English).

Heading into the convention center now. Why don't you join me for some fun at Comic-Con?

One of the major differences bewteen Comicon and Anime Expo, other than the fact that the population of my Japanese home city is around me on the convention floor at the former, is the cosplay differences: there were not many costmes at all at SDCC, but 33-50% of the fans at AX were in costume.

Lots of interesting T-shirts, yes. Since she likes the military uniforms, I gave her a catalog with our upcoming game.

I always get culture shock at all the tattoos and face-piercings (in some cases, "harpoonings" is the only term to use), which of course they don't do back in Japan too much. This woman had a Monopoly board on her arm -- pretty cool.

Nice button. Pretty wacky.

Close-up. Incidentally, I was using my Treo 650 that I bought for use in America (won't work in Japan though, grrr), which isn't as good in the camera-department as my normal camera.

We had this girl in costume hold our school bag from Matsukameya, and it looked really good in her hands. We got a *ton* of interest in the school uniforms we sell.

This guy looks like he's cosplaying Ray Bradbury cosplaying Mr. Spock.

Cool costume. He used a real flight helmet for the helmet part, too, for extra realism.

Another Mei. This one was cuter than the last one I took a picture of.