Friday, October 20, 2006

Conflicting themes in the medical industry in Japan, all about convenience stores, and how our brain names objects

Japan is a land of conflicting themes, of high tech phones and glittering gadgets alongside abandoned pachinko parlors and that old guy who drives around selling baked sweet potatoes (a local delicacy), where no one gives a second thought to undressing in front of strangers in the public bath but where a women would die before sunbathing with her top off like they do in Europe. The medical industry in Japan can be confusing, too, a thought that occurred to me watching a show on the other night in which famous TV entertainers ask hard-hitting questions of medical professionals. On the one hand, Japan has an effective network of large and small hospitals that promote good health and regular medical check-ups. There are two systems to ensure that full-time employees of large companies and workers in smaller companies/self employed people have health insurance, which has contributed to the Japanese having the longest life expectancy of any nation. Not everything is rosy, however. Since medical costs are tightly controlled, salaries for doctors are low compared to the U.S., and American companies that provide expensive drugs and medical equipment are frequently unwilling to invest in the local market. Japanese hospitals are consistently 20 years behind the rest of the world when it comes to things like organ transplants, and patients are often better off going overseas for some kinds of treatments. Going to the hospital involves a bit of Russian Roulette, since you never know what quality of care you'll receive, as with the recent case of a pregnant woman who died of a stroke while waiting for a hospital to accept her (happily, her baby was saved). Partially for this reason, patients make heavy use of the shokai or "introduction" system, asking a trusted general practitioner to formally introduce you to a specialist or hospital rather than just taking your chances.

How the brain assigns names to objects and how we categorize these objects in our world is something you might not think about much, but living in Japan, I notice some interesting things. In the movie Pulp Fiction, Bruce Willis's character makes a sharp distinction between a motorcycle and a "chopper" (a motorcycle with an elongated front end), which is silly on the one hand since there's very little difference between the two, but is nevertheless something we all do in language. In my own dialect of English, at least, a thumb is not considered a finger, and a pickup truck is defined as being a separate concept from a car, despite their similar function. Naturally, the Japanese have their own list of language quirks, such as concepts of "leg" and "foot" both represented by the same word (ashi) or the tendency for Japanese to insist that green and yellow-green are completely separate colors. While talking with my son, he'll use the word "tire" referring to the wheels on a plastic car (to me, a tire must be made of rubber), or "string" when asking where the wire for the Powerbook is, which make sense to him but sound odd to me. Language is interesting because it's a way to reflect on how our brains work, to read a little of the source code that makes up our own internal firmware.

As a foreigner, it's always fun to see what they have at the local convenience store (conbini in Japanese). There are dozens of convenience store chains here, dominated by Seven Eleven Japan, which created the category in 1974 by adapting an American concept with Japanese-style distribution practices and eventually grew to be Japan's largest retailer, much larger than the parent company. Convenience stores offer many products, including Japanese-style food (bento, noodles and onigiri/rice balls), various bread products (both sliced white bread and various specialty breads like Melon Pan and Curry Pan), drinks like canned coffee and bottled green tea, all manner of candy and gum, and lately, iPods and iTunes music cards. The concept of personal checks doesn't exist in Japan at all, and most people pay their monthly bills by taking them to their local convenience store where they can be read by the cash register. In the winter, I love to go to a convenience store and get niku-man, a Chinese bun which is basically meat inside steamed bread -- yum. There are microwave burritos to be had here, but be warned: with ingredients like scrambled egg & ham or pizza and sausage, the might not be what you're used to. Like Japanese banks, convenience stores here compete by trying to appear as similar to each other as possible (a concept that could only work in Japan), and by and large, you won't find something in one chain that's not available everywhere. The newest trend in convenience stores is Natural Lawson, a chain of shops that go out of their way to carry health-conscious items, organic vegetables, and so on.

The art of Shirow Masamune, the creator of Ghost in the Shell, is really amazing to behold, and preorders for his 2007 calendar (the first issued in several years) are already more than half sold out at J-List. Today we've posted his dynamite Togihime Zoushi 2, a book containing dozens of his incredible artistic creations that no Shirow fan will want to be without. Please note that stock is limited and the work is permanently out of print -- if you're a fan of Shirow's artwork, don't delay in picking up this new item!

Remember that Christmas is not too far off, and J-List is a fabulous place to look for unique and special gifts for that special someone on your list. Whether they're a card-carrying member of the otaku generation or merely like fresh and new concepts that only the Japanese could come up with, we've got the perfect gift ideas right here. Calendars are an especially nice gift, and we've got hundreds of amazing anime, JPOP, swimsuit idol and other calendars to browse through. Why not consider giving a J-List gift certificate, which can be issued in any amount and can either be sent in an attractive physical box, or as a printable PDF gift certificate sent through email.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Commomorating Karaoke Culture Day, a cruel joke on the population front, and all about mixed bathing in Japan

Japan is a big fan of naming special days to create awareness about things we take for granted, like Sweet Potato Day (Oct. 13) or Rubber Manufacturing Day (May 6) or Teddy Bear Day (Oct. 27, the birthday of Theodore Roosevelt, from who the name originates). Why do I know these silly dates? Because every time I start my car, a computerized voice greets me and tells me what special day it is. Today happens to be Karaoke Culture Day, a day to pause and think about the beneficial effects karaoke has had on all or our lives, or something like that. Karaoke sprung into being in 1971, created by musician/inventor Daisuke Inoue, who had been asked by customers at a live house he performed at to record instrumental versions of his songs so they could sing them at company events. With the recent invention of high-tech 8-track tape players, stereos were getting smaller, and Daisuke got the idea for a portable song machine with a microphone jack that would allow people to sing their own songs. The company he founded to market tape-based karaoke machines launched the modern karaoke industry, but it fell on hard times when Laserdisc-based karaoke came along and stole the marketplace, causing Inoue to step down as president to take responsibility for not leading the company more effectively. Unfor- tunately for Daisuke, it never occurred to him to patent the idea or trademark the name "karaoke," mistakes which would cost him hundreds of millions. The name, incidentally, comes from "kara" (empty, as in karate, which means "empty hand") and "orchestra." Since I learned Japanese in part by hanging out at Japanese karaoke restaurants in San Diego and reading the words as they appeared on the screen, I tip my hat to Mr. Inoue, and hope he's enjoying his retirement.

The population of the United States has just hit the 300 million mark, an event that seems like a grim joke considering that Japan's population has probably reached its peak of 127 million at just about the same time, and has started to decline as deaths outstrip births. I guess I'm not quite sure how to feel about the issue of population shrinkage. On the one hand, Japan has a high population compared its small size, with 327 people per square km, compared with 383, 27 and 3 for England, the U.S. and Canada, respectively, so it seems that the idea of a lessening of population pressures could be a good thing. But does a falling population mean that an eternally shrinking GDP is in Japan's future? Some people suggest this, but I don't buy it, since Japan is currently an extremely inefficient place, and if they can manage to copy just a fraction in productivity gains seen in the U.S. in recent years, the economy can grow even if the overall population declines. In reality, the macro-level changes that Japan is facing on the population front are likely to affect the average person far less than more localized trends, such as the tendency for young people to flee the extreme rural parts of the country for larger cities. During my bachelor days I travelled from one end of Japan to the other, visiting places like Aomori Prefecture at the top of Japan's main island of Honshu, known for its apples and sad enka songs, and Tottori Prefecture, home of Japan's only desert. These regions are very sparsely populated, with lonely train stations that have so few passengers passing through that it isn't feasible to keep even one employee there -- hence, you buy your ticket and give it directly to the train conductor when you got on the train. As usual, I'm sure the changes Japan is going through are things that will just be dealt with as we go forward in human history.

Bathing in public baths (sento) and hot spring spas (onsen) is a fun part of life in Japan, and something my family and I are big fans of. By and large, being in the buff in front of others is something you don't give a second thought to -- it's just part of the culture here, like beer vending machines and aloe flavored yogurt. While Japan is famous for images of men and women bathing together, kon'yoku or mixed bathing is actually very rare these days -- I've only found one mixed bathing bath, and believe me, I've looked hard. Although men are strictly forbidden from entering the womens bathing area, there's an unwritten rule that female staff may enter the men's bath to clean at any time, despite the natural state of all the men bathing inside. Usually the women are obasans (older women in their 50s or so), but every once in a while an attractive younger woman will come in to straighten the buckets or check the bath temperature, causing the occasional dash to hot water by gaijin who shall not be named.

Calling all fans of Japanese calendars! We've gotten a huge volley of 2007 calendars in stock, and have posted them to the site for you to browse. Among the calendars we have on hand and ready to ship out to you are Domo-kun (a great item for fans of NHK's famous brown spokesmonster), gorgeous idols like Mihiro, Yukie Kawamura, and Sonim, super anime characters like Boy Detective Conan, Negima, My Neighbor Totoro, beautiful images of Japanese castles and gardens, and more. We also have two items that I can't recommend highly enough: this year's outstanding Ghibli Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service 3-D calendars, which feature Totoro standing by the famous bus stop and Jiji the Cat, both of which are great for displaying photos in when 2007 is behind us.

Last time we officially announced that our new yaoi PC dating-sim game, Absolute Obedience, was in stock and shipping, and now we've got another announcement for fans of this popular genre from Japan: J-List's San Diego staff will be attending the upcoming Yaoi Con in San Francisco, October 20-22 in the heart of San Francisco. We'll have our great English-translated BL games as well as other fun stuff for you to browse, and our famous J-List tissue, of course. If you'll be at the show, please come by and say hello to us! You can see more information on the convention here.

Monday, October 16, 2006

What's up with those big eyes and colored anime hair, and, understanding Japan's great Meiji Restoration adventure

Many people first experience Japan through its animation, which has been a staple of entertainment here since Astro Boy was first broadcast back in 1963. I remember being surprised at the oversized eyes in the shows I loved as a child -- although in comparison, the eye-to-face area ratio is much higher now than in the old school shows of the 1970s. I was similarly surprised at the rainbow of hair colors found on most anime characters. Creating characters with hair in colors of green and blue and pink allows animation designers to be as expressive as possible and come up with characters who contrast sharply with the somewhat drab concrete-and-power-lines reality of modern Japan. There are subliminal messages embedded in the hair color choices, too. For example, red-haired characters are usually fiery and spirited, while the stereotypical refined girl from a wealthy family will often have blue hair. Black or brown are often used to represent the hair color of "Japanese" characters, who are more likely to be identified with by local viewers, and are generally more conservative (compare Amuro Rei to the flamboyant Char Aznable from the original Gundam series). While anime characters might sport bright shades of the rainbow on their heads, people in Japan don't actually have such colorful hair, do they? The answer is yes: despite the inability of hair-dye companies like Gatsby to make colorful hair "cool" among young people, many older Japanese seem perfectly happy to wear blue, purple and pink tints in their hair. Why this fashion trend is limited to people aged 80 and older is a mystery to me.

I love to study the Meiji Restoration, an event that probably has no equal in the history of the rest of the world. During the Edo Period (1603-1867), the line of Tokugawa Shoguns ruled Japan and kept it closed to outsiders. This changed with the arrival of Admiral Perry and his Black Ships, who forced Japan to trade with the United States and the rest of the world. A movement of young revolutionaries who opposed any contact with foreigners rallied around the Emperor, traditionally a powerless figurehead, and sonno joi (son-NOH JOH-ee) was their famous slogan, meaning "Respect the Emperor, expel the foreign barbarians" (it's one of our most popular T-shirts). As soon as they actually gained power, the leaders of the movement realized they couldn't very well go along ignoring the rest of the world forever, so they started negotiating with foreign powers. This displeased Saigo Takamori, a powerful member of their group, and he rebelled against the new government (these were the events in The Last Samurai, if you saw it).

During this intense period of change, Japan had to make some interesting and difficult choices. First of all, the government had to eliminate the annual stipend that anyone in the old samurai class was entitled to, which was a major political issue back then -- they mostly traded the stipends for government jobs. The government needed to do more to ensure that progress wasn't erased by disgruntled anti-reformers, so in 1871 they abolished the old system of "han" domains in favor of the current network of 47 prefectures, organized along totally new lines and with all-new names. Because of this, every part of Japan has two names, its modern one and its old name, such as Kozuke for our prefecture of Gunma, Ezo for Hokkaido, and so on. (Can you imagine all of the U.S. states being erased and redrawn along alternate lines?) Another important event of the early Meiji Era was the Iwakura Mission, when many of the Founding Fathers of the Meiji Government such as Hirobumi Ito and Toshimichi Okubo -- as famous as Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere to the Japanese -- toured the United States and Europe as Japan's first official diplomatic contact with the outside world. They negotiated treaties and observed how advanced the rest of the world was technologically, and what they saw formed the basis for Japan's long road to modernization.

(Small aside, I found a killer photo of Edo taken in 1865 or 1866, here. Is this not the coolest thing you've ever seen? A photograph of Tokyo from the Edo Period!)

J-List has long been a pioneer of PC dating-sim games, a fun genre of character- and story-based games for PCs in which you interact with cute anime girls as you move through the story, trying to find the keys to unlock their hearts. This year we released the first-ever yaoi PC dating-sim, Enzai - Falsely Accused, for the many fans on the other side of the aisle, and we've been really happy with the response we've gotten. Now we're happy to announce that our second English-translated "BL" game is in stock and shipping, the long-awaited Absolute Obedience by Langmaor, a unique game set in a highly stylized version of post-war West Germany. Featuring a great game system with twelve chapters and the ability to play either as the dapper Louis Hardwich or his uncouth sidekick Kia WelBehenna, this is an outstanding title that anyone interested in the genre should pick up. Check it out now!