Friday, August 18, 2006

Challenges of international marriage, housing issues in Japan, and all about Japanese bread (pan)

My wife and I face various daily challenges because of our kokusai kekkon, or international marriage. As an American I can never get completely comfortable with natto, the fermented soybeans she loves so much; and she'll always be frustrated by my inability to perform mugon ryokai, the "wordless communication" that somehow allows Japanese to send unspoken social signals to each other through the air. Our kids, however, are both American and Japanese, and they each have two passports to prove it. When a child is born to U.S. citizens living in Japan, they get automatic dual citizenship until they turn 20, allowing them to carry both Japanese and U.S. passports. Incidentally, I've lived in Japan for almost fifteen years and have permanent resident status, essentially a "green card" to live in Japan. I of course have the option of becoming a naturalized Japanese citizen, something that many "lifer" expats opt to do, but somehow the world seems a little more fun with me in it as an American rather than a Japanese.

One big area where Japan and the U.S. are different is housing. Houses are nearly always designed and built from scratch by construction companies, rather than made in blocks of similarly-designed homes as is usually the case in places like California. Land is never very plentiful in Japan, especially in areas where people would actually want to live, and partially because of this people tend to develop an attachment to land rather than their home. Since "used" houses don't have resale value like they do in the rest of the world, it's quite common for Japanese to tear their houses down and have new ones built every 15-20 years. Although the Japanese are fluent in the metric system, they always measure homes in tsubo, a unit of measurement that's equal to two tatami mats, or approximately 3.3 square meters, and prices for home construction are usually expressed "per tsubo" (with the average being around $2500 per tsubo to build a house). Home construction is a huge business in Japan, and every day you can see commercials from established companies trying to make you want to trade in your ratty old home for a fresh, new one built by them. Some companies show elephants standing on the second floor of their houses to show how sturdy they are, or hire famous stars like Ichiro Suzuki to promote their companies. Some companies you may have heard of are involved in home construction in Japan, including Toyota Home (Toyota) and PanaHome (Panasonic).

Although rice is the famous staple food of Japan, eaten with almost every meal, the Japanese are no slouches when it comes to bread. Called pan in Japanese, from the Portuguese who introduced it to Japan, the are dozens of varieties of bread here, available from national bakery companies as well as smaller bakeries that deliver fresh-baked right to shoppers. Often what the Japanese call "bread" would qualify as a doughnut to most of us, such as the famous Anpan, round bread with different types of Japanese sweet beans inside, or Melon Pan, essentially a large piece of sweetened bread that looks like a honeydew melon cut in half -- or like a brain, which is why Japanese say eating it will make you smart. One of my favorite types of Japanese pan is Curry Pan, fried bread with spicy curry inside, yum. They have "regular" bread in Japan, too, of course, and there's one benefit over U.S. supermarket-fare: you can buy a loaf of bread with 8, 6 or 4 slices (I recommend the latter if you like really thick French Toast). If you're a fan of Re-Ment, the company that makes incredibly detailed miniatures of food and other products, check out the new Homemade Bakery series we've just posted!

We've been tweaking our new search feature, which provides more accurate, weighted search results, and we've added some new functionality, including the ability to search for specific strings by putting quotes around the search term (entering "loose socks" with quotes searches for this exact string), and omit results (loose socks -glue, which will show all results containing "loose socks" but not the word "glue"). Incidentally, the new search system broke our "top 5" pages that indicate the most popular products on the site, but we've gotten it fixed and back on the main pages of J-List and JBOX.com.

Announcing the start of 2007 Calendar Season! Every year about this time, J-List starts taking preorders for the outstanding calendars from Japan, which are printed exclusively for the Japanese market. The calendars we sell every year come in two volleys: first, we post dozens of amazing calendars that capture the natural beauty of Japan; the delicate imagery of a tea garden; the aesthetic beauty of Japanese sushi or bento; kanji calendars for students; gorgeous bikini idols like Aki Hoshino; and fantastic other calendars like the best-selling "Onsen Girls." Most of the JPOP and anime calendars will be posted in a couple weeks. Please browse the amazing calendars we've got on the site for you now!

Each month, J-List offers a "PC dating-sim game of the month," allowing you to explore this amazing genre of entertainment from Japan at a special price. This month's game is Target: Pheromone, a great title from Trabulance in which you must help a witch from another dimension get home, which you do by collecting female, er, pheromones. A fun interactive game with a story that you control. Buy it as a shrinkwrapped package or download (the download is just $19.95).

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

My wife's new respect for Johnny Depp, 15 minutes of fame for Baby Gorilla and Pyupa, and High School Baseball in Japan

Something odd happened while I was in the States: my wife decided that Johnny Depp was the neatest thing since pre-molded sushi. She didn't come to that conclusion by watching his many films, which are of course entertaining, but because of an interview he gave to two fifth-grade students from my son's school, which teaches the standard Japanese curriculum but with most classes in English rather than Japanese. Since the experimental school started, it's gotten quite a lot of attention from the mass-komi (the Japanese media, from the English word "mass communications"), and over the summer they were visited by members of V6, one of the more interesting Japanese pop singer groups from the Johnny's Entertainment talent agency. After trying and failing to follow some of the classes in English, the V6 guys chose two students -- whose nicknames were Baby Gorilla and Pyupa, don't ask me why -- for a special task: they would interview Johnny Depp in English and try to make the usually serious actor burst out laughing.

As the Japan release date for Pirates 2 approached, Mr. Depp came to Japan to promote the film. Like many a Hollywood star before him, he was accompanied by Natsuko Toda, the famous movie subtitle translator who is so in demand that her personal schedule can affect the worldwide release dates of major films. (Her unfamiliarity with Tolkien caused much rending of garments by fans when she messed up the subtitles for the Lord of the Rings films.) When the time came for the sit-down interview, the kids asked various questions, then put on a show employing various gags about pirates with smelly socks in their treasure chests. They got their laugh, and Mr. Depp told them that was the best interview he'd ever done, which thrilled the kids no end. While my wife was a little disappointed that our son wasn't chosen for the interview -- he's way too shy, and has an unfair advantage over the other kids when it comes to speaking English -- she was impressed by the actor's kindness with the boys. It was an experience Baby Gorilla and Pyupa will never forget.

(Oh my! It's already on YouTube. Click here to see the interview.)

Pitcher at Koshien Stadium

There are many popular sports in Japan, including pro baseball, soccer, judo, volleyball, and the official national sport of the country, sumo wrestling. But for millions of Japanese sports fans the most thrilling game on TV is high school baseball. Every August, teams from each of Japan's 47 prefectures fight for the right to go to the national baseball championships held at the legendary Koshien (koh-SHE-en) Stadium near Osaka, Japan's oldest baseball stadium, dating back to 1924. To go to Koshien is the dream of every young ball player, and it has a positive effect on the future careers of thousands of young men every year, whether they go on to play professionally or not. All games are televised and get huge ratings as baseball fans, especially middle-aged men reliving their youth, closely follow all the action. This year our prefecture of Gunma is represented by Kiryu First High School, but they got eliminated early on (oh well). (Of course, any discussion of Koshien should involve Touch, the best manga and anime on the subject. Here's a link for you to check out if you want to know more about this show, which has done so much for me over the years.)

Everyone loves the DVD movie format, but we don't love Hollywood confusing things with their region code system. America and Canada are region 1, but imported films from Japan and Europe are often zoned for region 2, meaning to watch these films you'll need a special player. Happily, J-List carries excellent region-free players that are great for any use. We're happy to announce a new addition to our DVD player lineup, the RJ800 from Rjtech, a sleek DVD player that will handle any discs you want to throw at it, including PAL discs, discs from any region, DVD-R/RW media and more. This player is extra cool because it also plays all versions of DIVX/MP4/AVI, allowing you to burn your favorite movies onto DVD-R media and watch them on the big screen. In addition to this great new player, we've lowered prices on all our other players, including our top of the line DVD7050 (also DIVX capable) and the outstanding portable M280 (complete with battery and 7 inch screen).

J-List strives to bring you cool things from Japan every day. One category of product we love are the pre-painted anime figures that are so fun to display, perfect 3-D versions of Japan's amazing anime style, and already painted and ready to show off. Today we've got one of my all-time favorite series, the Mecha Musume line from Fumikane Shimada, which joins incredibly cute "bishoujo" female characters with World War II mechs, including RAF planes, Wiermacht tanks, you name it. Full sets in stock!



Nice to be back in Japan. Oh look, what does that sign say?



Oh, black currant and vinegar juice! I must be back in Japan!



This is a "regular" drink cup in Japan, for what it's worth. In this case it held "soft cream" (soft serve ice cream), which I love to eat when I get off the plane and into hot Japan.



I was surprised to find corn flakes in my cup. It was a pleasant twist on my ice cream.



Next up...Peter goes to Washington!

Monday, August 14, 2006

August and Yasukuni Shrine, a very Buddhist holiday, and small drinks and Japanese girls' butts

Well, I've made my little hop across the Pacific, and am once again in hot, humid, kawaii Japan. When people hear that the flight to Japan is around ten hours they usually offer me their condolences, but I don't mind it at all: it's much better than flying inside the U.S. at least, with extra-cramped seats, $5 drinks and multiple connections to your destination. In this wonderful age of MacBooks and iPods that we live in, there's always plenty to do to amuse yourself inside the plane. Now that I've been back for twenty-four hours, have gotten through my "shocked at the smallness of the drinks and of the buttocks on Japanese woman walking in front of me" culture shock phase, and have gotten up at 5 am thanks to jet lag, I'm ready for a J-List update.

Besides being hot as hell, August is a solemn month in Japan. In addition to the anniversaries of the two atomic bombings, August 15 marks Japan's official defeat in World War II, and like every August in recent years, the issue of Yasukuni Shrine is in the news. Will Prime Minister Koizumi make an official visit, or won't he? How will China and Korea react? It's really a sticky wicket for Japan: there is no Arlington National Cemetery, no Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, no place that citizens to pay respects those who died for their country other than Yasukuni Shrine, a beautiful traditional Shinto shrine located in Tokyo. Since the ashes of fourteen Class-A war criminals including Hideki Tojo are interred at the shrine, there's always controversy when the Prime Minister makes a visit. The situation seems not unlike the occasional uproar over the Confederate flag flying over state capitals in the American South (to put it in some kind of context), and there's plenty of pride and history on both sides, making it a difficult problem to solve. Except for a very tiny portion of the country that drives around in trucks blasting right-wing World War II songs and making fools of themselves, I've never known the Japanese to defend anything they did during World War II, or say it was okay at all. It's true that South Korea and China both use the Yasukuni visits partially for political reasons, since calling attention to the mote in Japan's eye diverts it from the beams in their own. It's a shame there can't be more understanding on both sides, and less politics.

August is also time for one of the major Japanese Buddhist holidays, Obon, essentially a three-day holiday during which the souls of the dead are thought to come home for a visit. Obon is a time when Japanese head to their "real home" (the house where their family's Buddhist altar is located, usually their parents' home), spend time with everyone, and do haka-mairi, visiting the graves of dead family members to say hello, leave flowers, wash dirt off the gravestones, and so on. Japanese Buddhism, more than Buddhism practiced in other countries, is all about remembering your ancestors, since (as my wife has told me passionately), "without your ancestors, you wouldn't be here at all." Obon season is also a time for festivals, including a famous style of dance Bon-odori (as seen in Karate Kid II, if you'll forgive the reference). Since millions of city-dwellers take advantage of the Obon holidays to return home, cities like Tokyo are transformed into relative ghost towns during this season.