Friday, September 22, 2006

Broken stereotypes of the Japanese, Japan's love affair with "overseas dramas," and Autumn, season of healthy appetites

Stereotypes are really not good, since they cause us to make assumptions about people from other countries before we've gotten to know them. When I taught English as a Second Language, I used to do a lot of part-time work, going to people's homes to teach their kids once a week, and I was able to come into contact with a lot of people this way. One family I taught seemed to be a pretty average Japanese family on the surface: bustling mother overly concerned about her kids' education; bright daughter; younger son who loved Pokemon and "UFO Catcher" (crane game) machines; and a salaryman father who often worked late. The father surprised me one day by showing me pictures of his journey from Vladivostok to Moscow on the Siberian Railroad, which had been a lifelong dream of his, and I was immediately sorry I'd assumed he was such an average Joe who lives only for his company. The leader of my daughter's Girl Scout troop is another such person. At first glance, she's an average middle-aged Japanese woman, worrying over how to make her daughter study more and tending a small dairy farm. Turns out, she's also a published author of children's books, and quite well known in her field, which I never suspected, looking at her. I wonder if the Japanese I meet here have stereotyped ideas about what I'm like before they get to know me? They're only human, so I'm sure they do.

Japan continues its love affair with kaigai dorama, or "overseas dramas," with shows like Prison Break, Lost and of course '24' scoring big with viewers here. U.S. networks like Fox have built a very successful business for themselves, offering TV series in DVD rental stores for 300 yen per disc, then showing them on late-night television when the next season approaches to pick up more viewers. I'm bowled over with how innovative the American companies are at marketing these shows to viewers. For example, subscribers to the Japanese version of Newsweek got a free DVD loaded with the first episodes of several different series, and as a result my wife and I are now hooked on The Dead Zone. Even older series are popular right now, and NHK is broadcasting many classics in the wee hours of the morning. It's funny to see what shows are defined as a "drama" to the Japanese -- the list includes some old shows that were big here like Combat, "Mystery Zone" (The Twilight Zone) and The Fugitive, but also some shows that aren't very dramatic, like Bewitched and "Special Bastard Squad A-Team."

If you've found your appetite increasing of late, it might be what the Japanese call shoku-yoku no aki, meaning "Autumn, the season of healthy appetites," named for the natural tendency for people to get hungrier at this time of year. For those who fall into that category, J-List brings you hundreds of delicious treats direct from Japan, including both well-known snacks as well as items you never knew existed. We've a great announcement for hungry customers, too: the return of Pocky to our site! Every summer we are forced to remove chocolate products from our website due to the heat and humidity which turns our Pocky into so much Melty Kiss, but now that things are cooling off, we're happy to announce our the beginning of our Fall 2006 Pocky lineup! In addition to the original classic and Men's Pocky, we've added the deluxe new Cookie Crush and Almond Crush Pocky, which come in deluxe packages with a whopping 7 packs of Pocky (so you can eat them one at a time without the others going stale).

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Politicial life after Koizumi, being at peace with taking your shoes off, and why Taro can't code

The post-Koizumi era will soon be on us, now that Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe has officially been elected leader of Japan's ruling Liberal Democrat Party. Although Mr. Abe's name might remind some of another famous politician, it's pronounced "AH-beh," not like the nickname of Mr. Lincoln. At 51, he'll be the youngest Prime Minister since the end of World War II, and he has promised to continue his predecessor's reform policies, which included making Japan's sprawling postal system more efficient and cutting those silly public works projects like bridges and roads that no one is using. One big issue he must wrestle with is a revision to the Japanese Constitution regarding the military, which exists in a kind of extra-Constituional no-man's land, as Article Nine specifically states that Japan will never have a standing military force. He'll also have to worry about how to stimulate the economy even as Japan's population dips, with a national debt that stands at 170% of its GDP. I'm personally hoping he'll work to find a lasting resolution to the ongoing Yasukuni Shrine problem, which honors the nation's war dead (good) but also the men who were most responsible for starting the war (bad). Following the popular Prime Minister Koizumi -- a hip unmarried politician who liked rock n' roll and who looked like George Washington -- will be a hard act to follow, but we wish him all the best.

Japan is ahead of the U.S. in some important areas, like tiny electronics, animation, cute character toys and fuel efficient cars, but they lag behind in the equally important areas of micro-brewed beers and availability of breakfast cereals and Mexican food. Unfortunately Japan seems hopelessly behind the U.S. and Europe when it comes to advanced technical knowledge of computers, including programming languages, Unix, and the like. The average Japanese just doesn't seem that interested in exploring the inner working of their PC, and as people come to think of email as "something you do on your phone" rather than "something you do on a computer," the trend seems to be continuing. The other day my wife mentioned to me that she'd taken quite a few computer courses at her high school, a "commercial" school that aimed to teach real-world skills over academic subjects needed for university entrance exams. It turned out that she'd been learning material that was a generation or more behind what I knew in the same era (1986), learning COBOL and LISP, making flow charts, and learning to touch-type on a now-archaic kana-layout keyboard. She even had to use a stack of punch cards to save her programs, which I vaguely remember from my days as a boy playing Original Adventure at my mother's office on Saturdays. A big part of the problem seems to have been the incredibly closed nature of Japan's computer industry, which saw several Japan-only platforms like NEC's PC98 which seemed to be designed to shut out third party software developers, as well as the popularity of stand-alone "wa-pro" word processing machines that used proprietary software in ROM. (Apologies to anyone who is going to flame me saying that COBOL and LISP are still taught and/or used somewhere in the world today...)

One rule about living in Japan: be at peace with taking your shoes off several times a day. Since shoes are considered "dirty" (on the same level as livestock), they're left in the genkan, a lowered section near the front door built into every home and many businesses (including J-List). Japanese know that Americans leave their shoes on inside the house from watching American television, and it looks very funny to them. While watching Shrek with my kids, they commented on the fact that Princess Fiona was in bed with her shoes on, something unthinkable in Japan. Inside the house, Japanese usually wear slippers, and if a gaijin goes to a Japanese person's house, the Japanese person will give him slippers to wear, even if they're much too small for his feet (they always are). Although we try to "live like Americans" when we go to the U.S., most of my Japanese family (including myself) quietly leave our shoes near the front door when back home -- it just feels to odd to walk on carpet with shoes.

J-List sells dozens of anime, manga, JPOP, fashion and "H" magazines from Japan via our "reserve subscription" service, which allows you to get the most recent issues sent to you automatically as they appear on newsstands here. It's a revolving service, so you pay for each issue as they come in, never needing to pay in advance, and you can switch subscriptions or cancel at any time. We have a new mag for everyone today, Myojo, great for fans of "bishonen" or really beautiful guys, like the actors and "talents" affiliated with the Johnny's Entertainment talent agency (you know the type). Each issues is filled with pictures and information on the hottest male heart-throbs in Japan as well as hip hair and fashion culture for guys and girls.

J-List has always pioneered cool stuff from Japan, like OH! Mikey, the parody of Americans living in Tokyo that's acted out by outrageous mannequins. Today we've got a treat on the site for you: Vermilion Pleasure Night, the wholly wacky late-night TV series that spawned OH! Mikey and which features many other wacky SNL-like skits for you. Translated into English through subtitles or dubbed tracks (depending on the skit), this is a great way to enjoy some of the most talented and avante-garde short films made in Japan in years.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Typhoons and destruction in Japan, Respect for the Aged Day, and a death sentence for Japan's scariest cult leader

Typhoon season has arrived in Japan, with Typhoon No. 13 (named "Shanshan" by the American weather service, although no one uses storm names here) washing away homes, roads and power lines in Japan's southernmost island of Kyushu. Sadly, nine lives have been claimed from such accidents as a train that was derailed by 144 kph winds which killed three passengers, a ferry boat that overturned killing a crew member, and one person whose car was washed away by a storm-engorged river. Typhoon season is always a trying time in Japan, and last year was especially bad, with extensive damage done to many parts of the country, including the 1500-year-old shrine at Miyajima. Incidentally, typhoon is the official term for a high-wind cyclone in the Northwest Pacific; in the Atlantic they're called hurricanes. Between typhoons, volcanoes and earthquakes, living in Japan is seldom boring.

Today is a holiday in Japan, Respect for the Aged Day, which has been a time to show respect for the older members of society and thank them for their years of hard work since it was officially enacted in 1966. It's also a time to take stock of how the face of Japan's population is changing. According to a report recently released by the Japanese government, 20.7% of Japan are now aged 65 or older, compared with just 12% in the U.S. The number of centenarians in Japan is way up too, reaching a whopping 28,395 -- wow. Everywhere you look in Japan, you see signs that older Japanese are becoming a larger part of society, whether it's the toy store near our house that went out of business to be replaced by a store that sells Buddhist altars and gravestones, or television commercials for products like Depends or hair coverings for women. While the number of elderly Japanese living in nursing homes and similar facilities is increasing, it's still much more common for them to live at home with their oldest son or daughter, who by tradition remain at home and take over the land and family business, if applicable. (We live with my wife's parents in a situation similar to this, since she's their only daughter.) One of the trends in Japan today is "reforming" (remodeling) your home to make it "barrier-free," so that elderly parents can get around the house safely.

The death penalty for Shoko Asahara, former leader of the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo, has been upheld by a court in Japan, paving the way for his sentence to be carried out sometime in the future. One of the most terrifying groups in recent Japanese history, the "Supreme Truth" cult is a mishmash of Buddhist and Hindu imagery centered around the charismatic (?) leader. The crimes committed by the group are many, including the brutal murder of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his wife and baby son for trying to bring attention to the misdeeds of the group. Their activities culminated in a Tokyo subway attack using sarin nerve gas which left 12 people dead and 54 seriously injured (including many who will never wake up from comas). The group fancied itself the "true" government of Japan, and doled out lofty titles to their members like Head of Ministry of Science and Technology or Secretary of State, and the sarin gas attack was an attempt at knocking the current government out of power so they could take over, bringing on the Rapture, or some such nonsense. I think the whole situation showed how ineffective Japan's government and police system can be when they put their minds to it. The Aum group had motive in the murders of Mr. Sakamoto and his family, yet they were not properly investigated at the time; instead the police spent years accusing Yoshiyuki Kono, who happened to live next to an Aum compound where sarin was released and whose wife is still in a sarin-induced coma because of the attack. They suspected him because he happened to have photographic chemicals in his home, and didn't investigate other possibilities.

J-List continues our spin up for Halloween, offering unique costumes and other products that are popular in Japan -- great for anyone looking for something special to wear this October 31st. Today on the site we've added a Sumo mawashi (the special belt that sumo wrestlers wear), a cool rubber wig that makes you look like a samurai, and something really esoteric, a wig and glasses set that will make you look like Yon-Sama, aka Bae Yong Joon, the South Korean hunk who starred in the drama Winter Sonata. A great costume if you have any Korean or Japanese friends!