Friday, August 04, 2006

Observations on America as a "free" country, what that means to the Japanese, and questions about Burger King and Dairy Queen

My son and I continue to enjoy our mini-vacation here in Baltimore, and it's been fun to watch his reactions to various things here. We went swimming the other day to try and get away from the heat (ha!), and one of his observations was that America is more "free" than Japan -- fewer rules to follow resulting in more fun, from his 11-year-old point of view. When you go swimming in Japan, there are plenty of rules to follow -- everyone must wear a swimming cap and must shower for 2-3 minutes before going in, no one may dive or even jump in from the poolside for any reason, parents must keep within an arm's reach of children until they're a certain height no matter how well they can swim, and of course kids may not horse around by seeing how high they can jump off Dad's shoulders into the pool. But we had a great time swimming here, and even tried our hand at the high dive, a very rare thing in Japan, a country where all the pools contain uniformly shallow water for maximum safety for swimmers. (Another random observation my son made to me: if Burger King married Dairy Queen, would their child would be Jack in the Box?)

The idea that America is more "free" than Japan is one I've encountered quite often during my ESL teaching days. Japanese students, tired of Japan's stricter, more structured society, often pine for life in America, which is "free" and therefore good. In what way is America freer than Japan, I would ask, always eager to teach a lesson on a subject that interests my students rather than working from an ESL text. In America, there are fewer rules and more personal freedom, the answer would come back. No uniforms in junior high and high school. Most Americans start driving at age 16, not 18 as in Japan, and young people don't have to pony up $3000 or more for a month-long driving school to get their license. In American there's less pressure to fit into neat little holes the society has prepared for you. No doubt the image of America being "free" was helped along by Harley Davidson slogans and Jack Daniels marketing campaigns, so it's hard to tell which perceptions are real and which are imagined, but it was always interesting debating what "freedom" meant to to the Japanese.

A "yankee" can be many things. To someone from the American South, the word refers to someone from the North, or maybe any American not from the South -- is that a hint of Japan-style in-group/out-group labeling I detect? If you're traveling abroad, you're a "yank" even if you hail from Alabama or Georgia. But in Japan, the word yankee (perhaps more accurately written yankii to keep the concepts separate) refers to a "bad kid," a street punk like the biker gang in the anime film Akira. Also called furyo" (lit. "not good) or boso-zoku (meaning "violent tribe"), the term yankii no doubt comes from the penchant these misguided youths have for dying their hair blonde, or at least orange-blonde, which is what color it usually ends up as. It's considered quite normal for a Japanese young man to go through a phase where he rebels against society, and this is sometimes expressed as dressing tough and acting like he came out of a 1950's drive-in flick. It's embarrassing to say it, but the whole yankii thing can be traced sociologically to James Dean's famous film Rebel Without a Cause, just as the seed for all "magical girl" anime from Minky Momo to Sailor Moon can be traced to the popularity of Bewitched when it showed on Japanese TV. It's funny how everything in the world influences everything country is an island, not even an island like Japan.

This month's "Game of the Month" is Target: Pheromone, a wacky 2-disc release from G-Collections. Silk is a witch who needs to return to her own dimension, and she needs your help. You must collect female pheromones for her to make her magic work, and to do this she puts all the women around you under your spell. Can you help Silk get home? A great game from Japanese publisher Trabulance. Special pricing on this outstanding game, this month only!

Remember that J-List carries dozens of amazing Domo-kun products for you, more than any other company in the world, we're pretty sure. Domo-kun is the ultra-cute spokesmonster for the "BS" (broadcast satellite) TV network operated by NHK, the BBC of Japan, and he's as cute a monster as you could ever hope to see. We're proud to bring you an incredible selection of Domo-kun products, with plush toys (including the giant huggable Domo-kun, the largest ever sold), Domo-kun straps for your phone, and a favorite of mine, the Domo-kun business card holder. Note that these items are very rare and are starting to disappear (already one of my favorite items, the Domo-kun business card holder, is out of stock for good, sob).

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Things Japanese don't expect gaijin to be able to do, learning proverbs in Japanese, and reflections on my childhood

There are several methods of learning a foreign language, including grammar-translation (learning grammar and example sentences), Total Physical Response ("Simon Says" type activities), the Natural Approach (mimicking how children learn), and so on. Added to this is the always-fun "do anything that gets you attention" approach, which I've named the Social Feedback Method since it sounds better. Looking back over my years of studying Japanese, I can see that I've enjoyed surprising my Japanese hosts by doing things they didn't expect a foreigner to do. Japanese are used to gaijin not being able to eat some of their more unique culinary dishes, but with very few exceptions -- fermented soybeans (natto) and pickled fish guts (shio-kara) -- I have surprised them by eating everything, including the time I was served whole baby octopus. I learned to sing enka, the traditional music of Japan, at karaoke, and I go out of my way to count pairs of chopsticks with the proper counter of zen (ichizen, nizen, sanzen), rather than the more common counter hon (ippon, nihon, sanbon). In my heyday I was even able to write a few esoteric kanji that my Japanese wife couldn't write, although use of computers has killed much of that. I guess part of my motivation was the look of surprise Japanese people wore when I did something they didn't think foreigners were capable of.

One thing they certainly don't expect is for foreigners to be familiar with kotowaza, or proverbs, observations on life that are quite common in the language, and used by people of all ages. Although they can be difficult to learn since they often use old or archaic grammar (think Shakespere), pulling one out at the right moment can bring a look of astonishment to the face of a Japanese person that's pure gold. Saru mo ki kara ochiru (even monkeys fall from trees) means that even an expert will make a mistake sometimes. Ame futte ji katamaru (rain falls, the ground hardens) means that difficult trials will build character in the end, and yes, that is the verb form of katamari from the game Katamari Damacy. Nana korobi, ya-oki (if you fall down seven times, get up an eighth) means that you should never give up trying to attain your goals if you want to reach them -- always come back swinging. Another good one is ishi no ue nimo san-nen (sit on a rock for three years), which means that you should try something for a reasonable amount of time (three years) before deciding whether or not you really like it.

The current heat wave aside, my son and I are having a great time in the Baltimore area. Today we hit all the places I roamed as a kid. There was plenty that was different, including a Costco in the middle of a field in Gaithersburg that I used to play in, and they even filled in the lake where I used to go spelunking (used in the Calvin & Hobbes sense, i.e. throwing rocks in the water to enjoy the "spelunk" sound). Much of my childhood was spent growing up playing in construction sites of new homes as they were being built, but now that the area is thoroughly developed, there are no more construction sites anywhere -- where will the kids of today play? Although there were many changes, some things were the same -- the drug store in Reston still sells real ice cream shakes, which were delicious (they don't sell Marathon bars anymore, though). We had an extra nice treat since the Seattle Mariners are in town, so I took my son to see a ball game with Japanese players Ichiro and Johjima live and up close.

Jumping around a bit, I'll finish the Grand Canyon pics later. This was our trip to the Orioles - Mariners game, yesterday. First of all, congrats to Baltimore for making a beautiful stadium, it was fun to watch a baseball game there.

It was West Point Night apparently, with midshipmen from the Naval Academy present in huge numbers. It was great for my son to see this, since he's not really seen the U.S. military, being raised mostly in rural Japan. He is very intersted in music so it was great to be able to see the instruments that the band played up close.

The O's got in the lead right away, and we were sure we were going to lose. Ichiro, who is supposedly a star, did absolutel nothing during the whole game.

My family has a tradition of yelling ii kao shite (lit. "make a good face") at Japanese baseball players (we once did this to Nomo and he gave us the funniest look), but for some reason when I yelled this at Ichiro my son got embarrassed and told me to shut up.

Ichiro's kouhai Johjima, who I'd not known that much about, really kicked butt during the game.

This ball was kind enough to drop near us during the game. Wanting to get it for my son, I dove for it with the urgency that surprised even myself. The stupid lady ahead of us ended up picking up the ball...

...and I ended up with massively scraped knees and wonderful oozing blood. Oh well, I can tell people I wiped my bike and see if they believe me.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Thoughts on raising kids bilingual, the origin of the name "Atari" and Our RV Trip

Well, our RV trip to the Grand Canyon is finally over. We had great fun and the kids were amazed at the grandeur of the place, and I was happy to be able to show them a beautiful part of the USA. Now I'm headed "Back East" to Maryland with my son. We're going to visit family and check out the places where I grew up as a boy (including the Kay Bee Toy Store where I bought my very first Star Wars figure, if it's still there). We'll also duck into Otakon (Aug 4-6) in Baltimore and check out the show -- I'll be on some panels related to bishoujo games on Saturday if you're there and want to come by to say hi. For information on Otakon, see

My wife and I want to raise our kids to be bilingual, but it can be difficult sometimes. Since we live in Japan, my kids are naturally much stronger in Japanese than in English, which is why we bring them to the U.S. every summer so they can get a good dose of American culture. We learned early on that if my wife or I are around, my kids will find excuses to speak Japanese, and nothing we can do can force them to use English. The best way we've found to manage this is to put them in a "sink or swim" situation where they have to use English if they're going to survive, and we've found summer camps to be a great way to make this happen. Every summer we choose several summer camps to send the kids to, which forces them use English and make friends with other kids. Today we dropped my daughter off at Raw Hide Ranch camp here in San Diego, a fun place where kids ride horses and play cowboy or cowgirl for a week (which I highly recommend, if you're looking for a summer camp in the area for next year). For most people a summer camp is a great experience for their kids, and a peaceful week for parents, but for us it's actually an incredibly beneficial tool for making our kids acculaturate to the U.S. and feel like "Americans."

It's funny, the things you discover when you start studying a language like Japanese. The first computer I ever owned was an Atari 400, those cool 8-bit machines from the early days of home computing. The word atari (pronounced with all syllables stress the same, e.g. ah-tah-ree, not ah-TAH-ree) is a Japanese word that literally means "to hit" and it's used in the context of hitting a target or meeting a goal. It also means to get the right answer, and on game shows the host may shout "Atari!" when a contestant guesses correctly. (Alternately, he might should "ping pong!" which happens to simulate the sound of a "that is correct" bell to the Japanese ear.) When former childhood idol of mine Nolan Bushnell founded Atari in 1972, giving your company a Japanese name when it wasn't Japanese must have been quite "edge." Looking at the kanji for the word (see it on the J-List main page), you can even see that they drew a lot of the inspiration for the Atari logo from the design of the character.

JAST USA is sponsoring the first "H-Game Webcomic" entitled "HH" over at JAST USA, a hilarious web-based comic that will parody the themes found in bishoujo games, featuring characters from games by G-Collections, Peach Princess and more. Come on by and check it out! We plan to update the comic every Sunday.

This is the RV we went to Arizona in. Two adults and four kids, it was certainly cozy inside.

It was 1100 miles, there and back, not that far as far as trips go (not as bad as, say, our annual trip to Dallas for A-Kon), but far, nevertheless.

Of course, gas sucked big times, although since gas prices are always way high in San Diego (usually $3.50, although today I found gas for $3.21) we were often happy to find chaper gas.

As a long-time Peanuts fan, I've *always* wanted to go to Needles to see if they had a statue of Snoopy's brother Spike, the only brother who I consider 'canon' since he's been around since the 1970s at least (Belle can live too, but Olaf, Marbles, and Andy have to die). There was no such statue to be found. Now I need to go to Petaluma. ("Petaluma?")

The kids were having fun in the back, although trying to get 4 kids to sit still in a vehicle for that long is a feat.