Friday, September 15, 2006

Thuoghts on "car culture" in Japan, the basics of how kanji work, and autumn = school sports day

Although Japan is a lot smaller than the U.S. -- it's about the same land area as Nebraska, but spread over an area larger than California -- cars are just as important to most people, especially outside of larger cities with their convenient trains. Roads in Japan are understandably more narrow than in countries with more space, and one aspect of driving here I still can't get used to is looking in the large mirrors positioned at blind intersections to see if cars are coming -- I usually just inch my car out to see oncoming traffic instead. While there are some small cars on the roads here, including a class of 1000 cc-and-smaller engine vehicles called "K" cars ("kei" is one pronounciation for the kanji for "lightweight"), there are plenty of big vehicles, too, such as the giant Toyota Land Rover, the Ford Expedition even a huge Cadillac Escalade I saw the other day. Although there is a network of freeways in Japan which are extremely clean and well-engineered, the fact that there's seldom one going where you want to go means that driving in Japan usually involves lots of surface streets and stoplights. Freeways aren't "free" either -- it costs me around $6 to go to the next city over, or $25 if I take the freeway all the way into Tokyo.

I've always been fascinated with kanji, the Chinese characters that Japan adopted around the 6th century. Essentially a pictographic writing system that was layered over the existing Japanese language, which had no written form up to that time, there are generally two pronunciations for any given character: the original Japanese word (for a word like water, mizu, 水), and the Chinese reading (sui). The basic rule is, a kanji all by itself (water) will be read using the Japanese reading, while compound words that happen to use the character as part of it (seawater, watercolor paint, hydrogen、海水、水彩, 水素 respectively) get read using the Chinese reading. Although I can't speak Chinese or Koran worth a damn, some of the more complex words in Japanese, like "cell phone" "air current" or "a delicate love triangle" (don't ask me why I know this, but it's quite well known here, 微妙な三角関係, bimyo na sankaku kankei) come out sounding the same, not unlike the way that many English vocabulary words are shared with French.

Autumn is upon us in Japan, and that means one thing: School Sports Day, a special event held at all elementary schools where kids run relays, do tug-of war, have egg toss competitions, perform dances or brass band numbers that they've been practicing for months, and so on. Tomorrow is our turn to "oo" and "ah" as our kids celebrate youth and sports at their school sports day, and we've got everything ready, from folding chairs to cameras to bento. In accordance with Article 17 of the Japanese Constitution, I've purchased a new video camera so we can record these special memories for posterity (our old one conveniently broke on us).

Our new embroidered Japanese hats are proving to be quite a hit with J-List customers, and we think they're a great way to add something unique to your personal fashion space. Today we've got two killer new hats for you, baseball cap versions of our "Cheshire Totoro" parody anime T-shirts which come in grey or blue. These very-soft Vintage Chino Twill Cap by Alternative Apparel are the best hats you can buy, with brass clasps for stylish size adjustment to fit any head (even mine). The new Totoro caps look great -- check out both colors on the site!

We've posted the rest of the 2007 calendars today, and there are now more outstanding large-format calendars from Japan for you than ever. All these preorder calendars are printed on the most beautiful paper you can imagine, and will become a special part of any room they hang in. We now have over 250 only-available-from-Japan calendars available for preorder, from beautiful images of Japan to rare JPOP to the hottest anime and more. Browse our 2007 calendar lineup now!

Just a reminder about email: it isn't what it used to be, and J-List often has problems with our emails getting through to customers, and vice-versa. We've noticed that Yahoo and Hotmail are two of the mail services most likely to delete mails from J-List without reason, with AOL coming in a close third. We recommend Google's Gmail service much more, and use it ourselves quite a lot (in fact we're updating the J-List contact form to use these email addresses). If you'd like to make the switch to Gmail but need someone to send you an "invite" email, just give us a shout and we'll get one to you right away. If you ever have problems getting a speedy email reply from us, please make sure you use the contact form on the site, which allows you to immediately reach all J-List employees.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A new social problem for Japanese, famous English phrases including "Boys, Be Ambitious," and the Japanese obsession with design

Among the many problems modern Japan faces is katsuji-banare (ka-TSU-jee bah-NAH-ray), or a growing detachment from printed characters. Japan publishes more books and magazines than any other country -- a whopping six billion individual books and magazines in one recent year. But at least 40% of that figure is represented by manga, Japan's world-famous comics, and as the percentage of visual manga increases, people are getting worried that Japan is moving away from its traditional writing system and culture. In our neighbood we have a bookstore called Family Book, and there are rows and rows of manga of all kinds there, taking up about the same floor space as novels and non-fiction books. How will this store look a decade from now, I wonder? Computers exacerbate the problem of moving away from the printed word, of course, since you essentially don't need writing skills to create a message -- just type your sentence into your computer and hit the space bar until the kanji you want pops up automatically. It makes for lazy brains, unfortunately.

Words become famous for various reasons. In English, a lot of well-known words and phrases come from Shakespere, and every time you say "there is method to my madness" or "that's greek to me," you're actually quoting the Bard. Japanese lock on to certain English phrases, too, often as a by-product of the six years of English language that most take in school. Some of the most well-known English phrases are those used in the classroom, like "this is a pen" or "How are you? Fine, thank you, and you?" or famous speeches from history (I have a dream, four score and seven years ago, that sort of thing). Many Japanese learn English through music, and J-List's Tomo was very familiar with lyrics from Beatles and Led Zeppelin songs at an early age. Every few years some TV commercial will use an English phrase that will imprint itself on the Japanese mind a little, like the Kanebo commercials that use "for beautiful human life" as a slogan. During the war, Japanese kids would go up to GI's and say "Give me chocolate!" and the Japanese staff reports that this is still a well-known phrase by their generation, sixty years later. One of my favorite English expressions is "Boys, Be Ambitious," spoken by Professor Clark, an American educator who taught at what would become Sapporo University around 1877. The words were for his students, eager to begin the work of modernizing Japan's government and other institutions in the Meiji Era, but they could be used to inspire just about anyone who needs a reason to aim for a higher goal. One of my favorite manga series is Boy's Be..., a collection of boy-meets-girl stories told from the point of view of boys trying to find true love. I once took a 14 hour train ride with nothing but Boys Be manga to entertain myself -- it was pretty cool, since the stories are so interesting. (Small plug, we have the Boys Be anime in stock now if you want to give it a spin.)

One thing I've always liked about Japan was the obsession with good design here. With a few rare exceptions -- schools and other public facilities are still often built in the Late Contemporary Chernobyl style -- most products here, from cell phones to cars to umbrellas to fax machines called "Fappy, the Fax that Makes you Happy," exhibit a strong sense of design. Japanese designers always strive to create products that will be judged kakko ii by consumers, which literally means "good style" and can be translated as cool, stylish or good-looking. (The opposite word is kakko warui, meaning dorky, ugly, uncool.) This approach to design even extends to something as simple as notebooks and stationery, as in the "64 degrees Fahrenheit" notebooks we've just posted to the site, which combine excellent design, beautiful quality paper and somewhat meaningless English (gotta love that).

Want to plug into some cool music from Japan? J-List sells Apple's iTunes Japan Music Cards, which happen to be the only way to buy songs from the iTunes Store in Japan unless you have a credit card with a billing address here (and even I don't have one of those). The Japan iTunes Store is chock full of great J-POP and other music, with songs priced at only 150 or 200 yen per track. The cards come in 2500, 5000 and 10,000 yen varieties, can be used with the iTunes you've already got installed on your Mac or PC, and music purchased is compatible with all iPods, including the new ones Apple just announced.

For fans of our 2007 calendars, it may surprise you that we have ... more calendars! Our staff has been hard at work releasing the rest of the fantastic large-format calendars that are printed exclusively for the Japanese market. Today we've posted some great new items for preorder, including popular anime calendars (Rozen Maiden, the new Kanon anime, Aria The Natural), oh-so-cute idols (Sayaka Ando, Kana Tsugihara, Momoko Komachi), fun calendars for kids, and even some sizzling calendars that will keep you warm this winter. Why not browse our extensive selection of 2007 calendar preorder items right now?

Monday, September 11, 2006

More ways we foreigners can save Japan, all about "Nihonjinron" and superstitions about death

Last time I put forth the idea that perhaps one solution to Japan's birth rate woes might lie in international marriage, that encouraging Japanese of both genders to consider marrying people from other countries might add something to Japan's somewhat homogeneous society and reverse the population decline. Gaijin males do have a reputation for being a lot more romantic than their Japanese counterparts, and a certain segment of female society seems to yearn for these qualities in a partner, sometimes desperately. Back when I was teaching ESL, it was my job to work with graduating high school students who were going off to study in the U.S. One of my female students had a hilarious book on how to avoid being mislead by blue-eyed, smooth-talking Americans who were likely to compliment a girl on how pretty she was (which is never done here), causing her to melt into his potentially less-than-virtuous arms like so much butter. Just as gaijin-husband Japanese-wife couples are known for being more "love-love," meaning more romantic, I'm pretty sure that couples with Japanese husbands and foreign wives tend to have the same altered dynamic. There's a weekly show on called My Wife is a Foreigner, which follows the lives of married couples in which the wife is from outside Japan. (Like many aspects of contemporary Japanese life, the show is heavily influenced by the American sitcom classic Bewitched, go figure.) In one episode, a Japanese man had married a Ukrainian woman, and the show explored how they raised their kids with both languages, how their meals differed from the average Japanese family's, and how the couple got along with each other when the kids were in bed and the wine was chilled.

One concept you eventually bump into when studying about Japan is "Nihonjinron" (nee-HONE-JEEN-rone), a word which literally means "theories on Japan." A collection of ideas that grew out of Japan's postwar period, the Nihonjinron concepts generally have to do with describing Japan as a unique country, totally unlike the nations of Asia or the West, with a linguistic and developmental history unlike that of any other nation. Part of this is the belief, held by almost all Japanese, that their language is one of the most difficult in the world, with its mixture of Japanese words and grammar overlaid by Chinese characters with readings that shift by context and region, with a heavy borrowing of foreign loan words for good measure. Another part of the reason Japanese is so hard, supposedly, is that it is so subtle, with so many shades of grey and information that's implied rather than being specifically stated. Although some of the ideas seem like they could possibly be valid, there's a high amount of voodoo in most Nihonjinron thinking, and overall it seems to be nothing more than coming up with ways to feel good about your own country, since everyone feels that their country is special.

Depending on how you look at things, the Japanese can appear quite superstitious. Certainly, there are many superstitions here that seem odd to foreigners, such as, don't cut your fingernails at night or you won't be able to be with your parents when they die, don't whistle at night or snakes will come and get you, don't give gifts in sets of four since four means "death" in Japanese, and so on. Many of these beliefs come from Japan's death-oriented Buddhism -- it's bad luck to sleep with your head to the north (kita makura), as dead people about to be cremated are laid with their heads to the north. Similar to this, there's a complex system of lucky and unlucky days according to a Buddhist calendar, with six different days that cycle throughout the month. It's good luck to get married or start construction on your home on the luckiest day (Taian), but if you were to get married on the unlucky day (Butsumetsu, the Dying Day of Buddha), you'd probably end up divorced and unhappy. Virtually all Japanese want to get married on Taian, and wedding halls are packed to the gills on these lucky days. When buying a car, it's also customary to take delivery of it on one of these lucky days, to avoid traffic accidents.

We love to bring you rare products from Japan, and today we've got some great items for fans of Nintendo's DS, which is incredibly popular all around the world. In addition to our recently posted DS pencil case, we've added pencils in DS colors, multicolored little DS erasers that open up, and a pad of paper that imitates the shape of a DS. A cool line of unique products only available from Japan!

Hot on the tail of the 75+ anime, JPOP, sexy idol and other 2007 calendars posted on Friday, we've got...a whole bunch more! We've got dozens of new anime calendars (Gintama, Gundam, Kiki's Delivery Service, the new Ghibli movie Tales of Earthsea, Fate/Stay Night), great new cute idol calendars (Mayuko Iwasa, Mayumi Ono, and more), JPOP calendars (Maki Gotoh and other Morning Musume members, and more), some old standbys (Audrey Hepburn, Hibari Misora), and some very steamy calendars (Yinling of Joytoy, and many more). Our large-format glossy Japanese calendars are a fantastic way to spend a year with your favorite images of Japan. Why not browse our 2007 calendar pages now?