Friday, September 29, 2006

What they teach in a Japanese "morals" class, smart tricks for studying a foreign language, and Japan's newest otaku boom

It's always interesting to observe the large and small differences between schools here and back in the States. Both my daughter's Japanese public school and my son's semi-private English school have regular classes called "morals" (in Japanese, 道徳 which signaled to me a Taoist origin, as that's the characte for Tao), which aim to make kids better people. Because I'd never attended a class on moral education in my own years in school, I've always paid close attention to the lessons whenever Parents' Day rolls around. Each lesson features a different topic related to moral education, of course presented in a totally secular fashion, designed to make kids think about issues and be kinder to others. In one lesson I sat in on, the teacher told a story about a boy who asked his mother for money whenever he did something around the house. He got a big shock when his mother presented him with an itemized bill for everything she did for him, from cooking and cleaning to making his bento lunch and kissing him goodnight -- which made him realize he'd been taking his mother for granted. One big topic the lessons cover is ijime, or bullying, which is an especially dire problem in Japan and one reason for a high rate of young suicides. Japan's society is fortunate because it has a large pool of "common sense" (in Japanese, joshiki, as in the line from the famous song Odoru Pompokorin, "Edison was a great man, oh, everyone knows that...") that all Japanese can draw from, and much of what is taught in morals class are things that everyone would agree with (and hopefully, always act on) such as, if you find a wallet full of money you should turn it in to the police department, or, always give you seat to an elderly person when riding on a crowded train.

I talked last time about one way I'd come up with to study English with my son, by seeing what vocabulary words we could plug into the Star Wars universe together. Really, being inventive and coming up with effective ways to study is something that students of any subject should strive to do. One good method I found while on my Japanese literature kick was "read while listening" -- reading Dazai Osamu's "Run, Melos!" while listening to the audio book was much easier than doing just one or the other. It can be difficult to memorize new vocabulary words, so give your brain a hand by coming up with mnemonic hooks, such as learning the word shinu (shee-nu, "to die") by memorizing the phrase "she knew he was going to die." Back when I was studying, I made heavy use of Nihongo Journal, a monthly Japanese study magazine that we're fortunate to be able to offer now, and I found that covering the English translations in the book with duct tape was a good way of keeping my eyes from wandering away from the section I was working on. I learned some interesting memory tricks too, such as memorizing JPOP songs which allowed me to recall words later by singing the song in my head, or staring at a page in my textbook until I could bring it up in my mind during tests.

It's hard to keep up with anime trends in Japan, since they're always in motion. The newest boom in otaku culture seems to be tsundere (ツンデレ, TSOON-deh-reh), a word that describes girls who are cranky and quick to anger (in Japanese, tsun-tsun) on the surface, yet loving and vulnerable when it suits them (known as dere-dere, pronounced deh-reh deh-reh). A staple in anime and PC dating-sim games, some famous tsundere characters include Asuka from Evangelion, Akane from Ranma 1/2, Sanae from The Sagara Family (who has a tendency to punch the main character violently at any provocation), and if you ponder it long enough, Princess Leia from Empire (go on, think about it for a while). Like cat girls, waitress uniforms and French Maid costumes, tsundere is closely tied to the Cult of Akihabara and moe (mo-EH) culture that has become such a big part of modern Japanese life. Now instead of passively watching your favorite rough-around- the-edges character in anime, you can experience her in the flesh at a new "Tsun-Cafe" which features beautiful waitresses who insult customers, acting frustrated when they take too long to order and yelling things like, "Here's your coffee. Drink it quickly and get out of here, will you?" But when it's time to leave, the girls look sad, and say, "Oniichan, I'm sorry I said those awful things to you. You will come again, right?" Here's the video:

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Language learning and the "Han Solo Factor," example of silly English in product names, and more

As a student of a foreign language, I know that there's no "magic" way to learn, and even if you live in a country where the target language is spoken, you need to work hard in order to master it. My son is one of the only kids at his special English school who are haafu (half), and since he has a native English speaker for a father, some of his classmates assume that he magically absorbs English through my DNA. The truth is that we use what I call the Corellian Approach to Communication, after Han Solo's homeworld in Star Wars: I speak English to him (like Han) and he speaks Japanese back to me (like Chewbacca's growling). The problem is that I'm "defined" as a Japanese-speaking person in his mind, and it's very hard to change a linguistic relationship once it's established. He's been preparing to take level 2 of Japan's infamous "Eiken" test, since it's always nice to have something to shoot for when studying, but there's a problem: not only are the English words on the high school-level test quite difficult, he hasn't learned the kanji used in the textbooks yet. To keep him from getting frustrated, I came up with a game to fit the vocabulary words he was memorizing into the Star Wars movies, which he's quite familiar with. The word "compensate" is a hard word for an 11-year-old boy to learn, but when you can tie it to a scene with Boba Fett ("What if he doesn't survive? He's worth a lot to me." "The Empire will compensate you if he dies."), it becomes much easier.

Duck! Oh! That's! These are examples of some of the more bizarre English that we see daily in Japan, printed on the sides of trucks, plastered on jackets, painted carefully on automobiles. Since all Japanese study six years of English in school (or up to ten years if they take it it in college), most people have a basic working knowledge of English, even if they can't always communicate fluently. One aspect of the Japanese I learned pretty quickly upon coming here was that they don't think too deeply about the English used around them, and so it's not at all rare to find a person wearing a T-shirt that has meaningless English like "the situation is not favorable in for us against" or "Splush! is not only the problem of age" on it. In part because English has an air of mystery to the Japanese, a certain je ne sais quoi, it can be useful for companies trying to sell products. Some of the more interesting English product names I've come across include Oh, Hot! (spicy miso paste for ramen), Clean Up! (a line of kitchen appliances), Perky Bit (chicken nuggets), and Pocari Sweat (the venerable Japanese sports drink). Some products, such as cars, are always named in English or English-sounding words, like Corolla, Camry, Cephiro, Fairlady Z and Bongo Friendee. A car with a Japanese name would sound as strange to people here as Mitsubishi Thanks Chariot Super Saloon does to you and me.

J-List loves the genre known as PC dating-sim games, and we think they're a satisfying way to interface with Japan on a new level. We carry virtually every English-translated story-based "H" game available, and there are titles for every taste, no matter what characters, stories or themes you're interested in. This year has also seen the release of the first yaoi PC game, a great new genre for fans to try. We're happy to announce that our newest yaoi title, Absolute Obedience, has gone "golden master" and will be shipping soon. In this innovative new game, you play one of two roles, the dashing and refined Louise Hardwich or his rough partner Kia WelBehenna, playing a dozen unique game missions, each with multiple endings. With fantastic art and stories, we hope that all fans of "BL" games will support our efforts to grow this genre by getting the game. You can still preorder it and get free shipping when it ships!

Now that it's cooled off, we've started selling chocolate items again, such as Pocky, famous all around the world as an icon of Japan. The 2006 Fall Season includes some great new varieties, including today's Black Sesame Seed and Five Fruits Pocky and Decorer Pocky (short for "decoration cake") in Apple Cream Custard and Grape Mild Chocolate. We're happy to announce the return of another rare product for Japanese snack fans: Green Tea Kit Kat, the supremely delicious Nestle Kit Kat made with flavorful green tea from Uji, Japan (near Kyoto). Available in deluxe bags that are brimming with individual wrapped "two finger" packages, we've got limited stock of this delicious treat (less than 200), so we recommend that Kit Kat aficionados pick some up soon, before it all goes.

In other news: we've gotten the first batch of 2007 calendars in stock early, with several dozen large-format anime, JPOP, sexy idol and other unique calendars on the site and ready for immediate purchase. These calendars, which are made exclusively for the Japanese domestic market, are a great way to make your year a really special one -- they make great gifts, too. Newly in stock include Mihiro, Aoi Miyazaki, Shinkansen, Naruto, Totoro, Chisato Morishita, and many more. As we get the actual calendars in stock, we'll be adding photographs showing the internal pages, so you can see how nice the photos are. Browse our stock of calendars now!

Monday, September 25, 2006

Peter tastes local politics, the Joba horse-riding machine, and more info on blood types

Today I took a couple of hours off work to participate in local politics, heading down to sit in on a session of the Prefectural Assembly about my son's special English school. Although the lawmakers have voted to financially support the school, which teaches the standard Japanese curriculum but with all classes except for Japanese and social studies taught in English, there's an impasse due to opposition by the Prefectural Governor. At the most recent debate on the issue, a few dozen parents gathered to show their support for the school, and I brought a little "gaijin power" to the mix, since having an American in a group will get attention -- the local TV station was there and kept zooming in on me during the debate. It was my first time to see the law-making process in Japan up close, and although it was like watching C-Span dubbed in a foreign language without the ability to change the channel for 90 minutes, it was educational, too. I certainly learned that my prefecture has plenty of money in its budget for beautiful facilities for its legislators to work in, although the educational budget is stretched to the limit...

All companies must come up with fresh and interesting products to interest their customers. When National (as Panasonic is known inside Japan) announced their horse-riding exercise machine, there was a lot of snickering on the Internet. But the company has turned this wonky product idea into quite a profitable category, selling 120,000 of them so far. The Joba ("horse-riding") device, which looks like a scaled-down bucking bronco machine, simulates riding a horse and tones muscles as the user struggles to keep balance on top of the machine. We broke down and bought one of these last week, and have been putting it through its paces. It's nice and low-impact, and it's a fun way to pass thirty minutes. Supposedly they're selling it in the U.S. now, under the name "Core Trainer."

Anime fans know that a written profile of an anime character is likely to include their name, place of birth, interests, "three sizes," and usually, their blood type. The Japanese believe some interesting things about a person's blood type, mainly that there's a correlation between blood type and a person's personality. Supposedly, type A are straight-laced, serious about everything, very organized, and make good accountants; type B are "my pace" (e.g. they go at their own pace, live in their own world), quickly get bored with things that don't interest them, and speak their minds to a fault; type O are bold, hate to lose and have good leadership skills; and AB people are supposedly so smart they look strange to everyone else. This fascination with blood types is the subject of semi-regular TV specials, which investigate which blood types are most common among famous athletes, politicians, actors, business leaders and so on. In one experiment they separated kids by blood type and asked them to move water from one aquarium to another one, them filmed the results. The type A kids used small spoons to carefully move the water from one tank to the other, while the type B children tried to come up with a good way to move the water, but got bored and gave up in the middle. The type O kids lifted the first tank and poured the water into the second tank, not caring how much water they spilled on the floor in the process, and the type AB kids got smart and moved the two tanks around, so that it appeared that they'd moved the water when they hadn't actually done so. One possible explanation about why the Japanese are so concerned with blood type is, it adds a dash of individuality in a country that's otherwise very homogeneous, not unlike an American taking pride in the various countries that make up his ancestry. My son is a very organized, meticulous kid, and my wife had always assumed he was blood type A. We had him checked the other day, and darned if he isn't AB instead, which caused her blood type-influenced world view to come crashing down.

We've got two new wacky shirts up on the site for you. Starting off is the first-ever shirt by Dan Kim, the extremely talented artist of the Clone Army web comics, including Nana's Everyday Life, Penny Tribute and Kanami, as well as the new "H.H. - The H-Game Webcomic." The shirt features the deliciously bizarre (and gory) art from one of our favorite comics, Tomoyo42's Room, which parodies the relationship of Sakura and Tomoyo from Card Captor Sakura. It will be produced in 1-2 weeks, but we're posting it for preorder now. Then, everyone knows that the Japanese take their shoes off before entering a house, which helps separate the "uchi" (inside) from the "soto" (outside) and of course keeps your house clean. In some homes or businesses there are signs that specifically ask you to remove your shoes. It occurred to us that a wacky T-shirt incorporating these signs would be great for our customers, and hence our new "No Shoes Allowed" shirt was born, which sports a bizarre warning message that "It is forbidden to wear shoes indoors." Totally cool!