Friday, October 27, 2006

American-style shopping in Japan, the shadow of MC Hammer in TV commercials, and what does baseball have to do with ham?

Last weekend my son and I decided to stop by Aeon, a sprawling American-style shopping mall that recently opened near us, featuring 150 shops and a large-scale department store filled with good things for consumers to buy. We were sorry we'd bothered, though, since 25,000 people or more were also converging on the place, resulting in huge traffic jams for miles around. The shopping center follows the U.S. model so closely that my son and I felt we had been transported back to San Diego, and I was tempted to pull out a $20 bill to pay for our Starbucks, instead of Japanese yen. One of the most important rules for success in business is, wait for the next inevitable paradigm shift to come along and take advantage of it it when it does, advice which American companies seem to be taking, judging from the number of stores like Gap and Body Shop that were chasing a new type of Japanese shopper. How land is allotted and used in Japan is a very complex subject, and the new Aeon shopping center had been plunked down in the middle of an area designated for rice-farming, supposedly forbidden to all construction. No doubt the developers got special permission from the city in the interests of economic development.

Shino as Darth Vader

The Japan Series, Japan's national baseball championship, is over, with the Nippon Ham Fighters beating the Chunichi Dragons 4-1 in the 5th game. It was a big win for the Hokkaido-based team, which hadn't claimed a championship in 44 years, but also very big for Tsuyoshi Shinjo, who played for the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants a few years back. The flamboyant baseball player, who has amused fans by dressing in costumes like Darth Vader, Spiderman and the Power Rangers, announced that he would be retiring this season, and yesterday's win was his last game as a professional ball player. By the end of the game he was in tears, so much so that his last at-bat was an easy strike-out. It was interesting to see the many changes that have taken place in Japanese baseball during the time I've been here. In addition to the standard two foreigners that the team fielded -- never more than two, by unofficial agreement among the teams, to preserve the Japanese-ness of the game -- the Fighters' star pitcher was young Yu Darvish, a lanky half-Iranian half-Japanese with a killer fastball, and the manager that brought the team to victory is Thomas Brad Hilton, formerly of the Texas Rangers.

When that old Pepsi commercial featuring rapper M.C. Hammer singing "Feelings" when he's given a Coke was shown here, it created problems for Pepsi, since Japan is among the many nations that doesn't allow companies to compare their products directly to competitors ("our product is better than brand X"). When companies do make a statement that a product is better, lasts longer, etc. you invariably see the words "compared with this company's previous products" on the screen in small letters. It seems like the tendency for companies to avoid direct comparisons might be lessening somewhat, though. Recently the government has required that cell phone companies allow users to keep their phone numbers when they change companies, allowing consumers to flit between providers at will, and as a result, Japan's #2 phone company ("au by KDDI") has started a big push for market share, touting their #1 customer satisfaction and actively courting switchers. Maybe we'll see those Mac vs. PC commercials on the air in Japan someday?

Do you dig JPOP music? Apple's iTunes music store is a great way to gain access to thousands of Japanese artists. There's just one problem: unless you happen to have a credit card registered in Japan, you can't buy from the store. There is one great way that people around the world can get in on these Japanese tunes, however: buy the prepaid iTunes music cards that J-List sells, which make it a snap to surf over to the iTunes Japan store with the iTunes you've already got installed, browse their offerings, and make your purchases with your Japanese account. Music purchased at the iTunes Japan store is fully compatible with iTunes and iPod, no matter where you live. It's a great time to try the iTunes Japan store, because BMG/Sony has just added their catalog to the Japan store, so there's more cool music to choose from than ever before.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Checking one's cultural preconceptions at the door, all about Tokyo and surrounding areas, and J-Drama update

When you come to a place like Japan, it's always best to check your cultural preconceptions at the door and keep an open mind, since you're sure to encounter things that don't mesh with your "cultural reality." We like driving around with our handy Alpine Navi, or GPS car navigator, which is nice to have if you find yourself lost or get the sudden urge to find the nearest sushi restaurant. The clever map shows small and large roads, indicates traffic jams, and marks hospitals, schools and convenience stores clearly. It also shows the many Buddhist temples that dot Japan with the universal icon, the swastika. Seeing swastikas on maps does take some getting used to, but in reality the icon is thousands of years old, used since prehistoric times and found in ancient Rome, Persia, and throughout the Hindu and Buddhist world today (in China the symbol denotes vegetarian food). In the end, encountering these little differences in culture is good for everyone since it makes us understand the world better.

Swastikas in Japan

Since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the official capital of Japan has been Tokyo, a name which means "East Capital" in homage to the Chinese cities of Beijing ("North Capital") and Nanjing ("South Capital"). It's a sprawling mesh of trains, roads, and concrete, with a population of 12 million, a number which rises significantly during the day as people come in from the surrounding regions to work. Tokyo isn't a city at all, but a prefecture unto itself, with 23 "special wards" as well as cities, towns and (don't ask me why) villages established inside its borders, like New York's boroughs carried to a bizarre extreme. Tokyo is so massive that it spills out of its borders, creating one unbroken urban continuum around it. Japan's capital is bordered by Yokohama to the south, home the best Chinese food in the country; Yamanashi Pref. to the West, a nice place to take in Mt. Fuji; Chiba Pref. to the East, home of Tokyo Disneyland and the setting of the seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer; and poor Saitama Pref. to the North. For some reason, it seems that regions that live in the shadow of famous cities can get negative reputations, like New Jersey or the Orange County area of California ("living behind the Orange Curtain" a friend from Garden Grove used to say to me). Poor half-rural, half-urban Saitama has certainly been cursed in this way, so much so that the main slang word meaning "dorky" or "uncool" in Japan -- dasai, pronounced dah-SAI -- comes from this prefecture's name.

Yesterday was the funeral of Takuya Fujioka, the actor who played the grandfather on the long-running Japanese drama "Wataru Seken wa Oni Bakari" (translatable as "Nothing but Devils in the World" although the official English title seems to be "Making It Through"), who passed away at the age of 76 last week. One of the most popular shows on TV today, the drama follows the (usually unhappy) life and times of the Okakura family, who run a ramen shop, focusing on the five grown Okakura daughters. The plots are absolutely mundane, dealing with issues like wives not getting along with their mothers-in-law, headstrong kids who refuse to go to school or show respect to their elders, and so on. I positively hate this twisted Japanese take on the Brady Bunch, since just crossing through a room with the show on TV is enough to trap you for the next hour, like a fly in molasses. The show has been running off and on for fifteen years, a rarity the J-Drama scene, where series are usually limited to 15 weekly episodes with a climactic resolution at the end.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The social problems of "hikikomori," a Japan population update, and budding awareness of a scary holiday

One social problem that's being talked about more and more in Japan is hikikomori (hee-kee-KOH-MOH-ree, 引きこもり), a Japanese term that refers to young shut-ins who withdraw from society, preferring to stay cooped up in their rooms and refusing to leave the house for months at a time. A strange phenomenon that's becoming more and more prevalent in countries like Japan and South Korea, aided by the growth of the Internet and vibrant all-online communities, the problem is a growing national concern. The topic of shut-ins has been cropping up more and more in anime these days, as the medium matures and is able to express itself in new ways. One show called Rozen Maiden centers around a hikikomori main character who refuses to go to school, instead spending his days ordering occult goods from the Internet (he accidentally buys an animated gothic doll who enslaves him to her will). Another anime that's likely to bring Japan's shut-ins together as a generation just as Gainax's Otaku no Video did with otaku fifteen years before is Welcome to the N.H.K. In this popular manga and anime, the story isn't about Japan's famous public broadcasting station (also known as the Domo-kun people), but the Nihon Hikkomori Kyokai, or Japan Shut-in Association, which figures into the story. I wonder if it'll be shown on Cartoon Network someday?

As Japan's population continues to decline, especially in rural areas, smaller towns and villages are doing what they can to respond to the problem. In many cases, this takes the form of gappei (GAH-peh), or merging, combining regions to form new communities to hopefully spur economic growth. This is what happened where J-List's own Tomo lives, when the former town of Omama, population 22,000, combined with several surrounding areas to form Midori City, with three times the population and a cool, urban-sounding name. Near his house, there's an elementary school with 35 students -- not 35 students per class or per grade, but 35 students in all six grades. Hopefully the new status as part of a larger city will enable municipal leaders to combine the school districts into larger units where kids can have friends and a more normal school life. Towns with shrinking populations are trying to deal with their predicament another way, by closing redundant hospitals and other public facilities, moving their functions elsewhere. In one small town in Mie Prefecture near Osaka, residents lost the only hospital where they could give birth, requiring an hour's journey to the nearest facility instead.

Halloween in Japan

Halloween is neigh, and all through Japan you can see the devilish grin of Jack-o-Lanterns, as decorations in stores at least, if not on display in front of homes. Halloween isn't exactly a part of the normal Japanese cultural fabric, but year after year this unique Celtic-and-American export finds its way into the hearts of kids here, who learn about the holiday as an extension of learning English, and sometimes get to dress up. When we enrolled my son at the experimental English school, we didn't know that we were putting full-blown Halloween back into our expat lives, but since the school hosts a giant Halloween party every year where everyone comes in costume, we've had reason to go all-out. This year my kids are going as Anakin Skywalker and Princess Leia.

Happy news for Shirow fans: his popular 2007 calendar, the first one issued in several years, is in stock and shipping now. This calendar features all-new art created by the talented illustrator who created Ghost in the Shell, the anime that inspired the Wachowski Brothers to make The Matrix. His calendar is proving very popular this year -- we ordered more than a hundred but sold half of those just on pre-orders.

Okay, some random pictures for you. This is probably the only Ham and Cheese on French Toast sandwich you're likely to see today.

It was moving day for us in Karuizawa. This is my son, insisting that I squoosh him in the car with the other stuff.

Like I always say, "Stay it with Flowers."

Anakin Skywalker prepares to conquor a galaxy.

Meanwhile, back at the Tantive IV... I had to train her to say "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope," since she doesn't know the films as much as Kazuki and me.