Saturday, November 04, 2006

A delicious food that brings people together, naughty words in Japanese, and the tragedy of "ijime" in Japan

Last night we went to a friend's house to have one of my favorite dishes, nabe (NAH-beh), a word that just means "pot" and refers to any kind of food you make in a big open pot and eat with everyone gathered around, conversing while taking things out (boiled meat, fish, tofu, vegetables, etc.). There are many varieties of nabe, from the spicy Kimchee Nabe that our friends made for us last night (as they are wont to do, the Japanese have adopted the national food of Korea as one of their own) to the Kiritanpo variety enjoyed in Northern Japan, and the famous Chanko Nabe from Nagasaki, huge pots containing many different ingredients which are traditionally eaten by sumo wrestlers. Another famous variety of nabe food is Sukiyaki, one of my all-time favorite dishes. Aside from being delicious and a great way to warm up in the colder months, nabe is a genuine "social food" which makes for great conversation, since everyone sits around the pot to take food out of it rather than eating from their own hoarded pile. It also allows uniquely Japanese concepts like enryo, the tendency for people hesitate when taking, say, the last piece of tofu before asking of anyone else would like it, to work in the group. (We do have some great bilingual books on how to make Japanese food like nabe, although most are out of stock due to their popularity. You can backorder any of them and we'll send the when they come in.)

Japanese Kimchee Nabe

One sad aspect of Japan's society is ijime (ee-jee-MEH), the cruel bullying that happens in school and other situations. We're all human, of course, and various forms of hazing can be found in any group, from college fraternities to West Point to making the new guy at McDonald's count all the pickles in the pickle bucket as an initiation ceremony. There are some reasons why ijime is an especially bad problem in Japan, including the strictness of the top-down senpai-kohai relationship system and the practice of having students sit in the same class with the same members for an entire year rather than giving each student a different hourly schedule, which means that any problem between students is magnified many times. You can see examples of ijime in Japanese animation stories, too, such as the classic tennis show Aim for the Ace, which is closely parodied by Gainax's Aim for the Top: Gunbuster (which we have paid no small tribute to). When the main character is chosen for the tennis team even though she barely knows how to hold a racquet, she becomes the target of teasing by the other members, who do things like put thumbtacks in her shoes. Of course, ijime can happen to anyone, and my wife even had problems with some of her co-workers at a company she used to work at. Once, everyone was going out to eat at a French restaurant, and they told her to dress in plain clothes. When she arrived in jeans, she saw that everyone else had secretly dressed up, just to embarrass her. Sad to say, but my half-American daughter has been the target of ijime in her almost-homogenous school from time to time, for example when the other girls cruelly say "What's that? I can't understand English" when she speaks to them in Japanese. We make sure we're supportive and let her know she shouldn't pay any attention to what some silly kids say. She is Japanese, and American, and has both passports to prove it.

When you learn a foreign language, the first thing you usually learn are the "naughty" words. However, people studying Japanese are often surprised to learn that most of the bad words they're used to in English don't "map" over very well. The most common Japanese insults include baka (BAH-kah, stupid), aho (ah-HO, the Osaka version of the same word), and boke (BOH-kay, basically meaning "nim-wit"). Almost all the anatomical words you may be used to just don't work in Japanese, nor does the "F" word, which doesn't even exist, except occasionally in English as a foreign loan word. The most basic Japanese swear word is probably kuso (KOO-soh), the "s" word, yet it's interesting to note that it's not considered a bad word, as it's used in children's anime like Yu-Gi-Oh quite often and no one thinks anything of it. It addition to the primary meaning, the word kuso can also refer to various bodily products. The stuff that comes out of your nose is hana-kuso (nose-sh--), and ear wax is mimi-kuso (ear-sh--). Sleep in your eyes that builds up while you sleep is me-kuso (MEH-kuso), and plaque on your teeth is called ha-kuso. Now you know some interesting Japanese vocabulary words!

Good news for fans of our Japanese calendars: we've gotten in a huge shipment of our most popular 2007 anime, JPOP, idol/actress, traditional, art and other calendars, and we've posted them to the site, complete with updated photos so you can see how good the insides of these calendars are. There's no better way to spend the coming year than with a slice of Japan on your wall. Since J-List goes far behind carrying merely the top 20-25 releases, instead carrying a huge selection of these great poster-sized glossy calendars, you've got a huge selection to browse through while you decide which you'd like to by. But fair warning: our current stock represents the last stock we'll get of many calendar items, so we recommend that you order sooner, rather than later, to avoid the agony of not getting that Ghibli or Domo-kun calendar you had your eye on disappearing from the site.

J-List would like to remind you that we've got a huge selection of cool and wacky products from Japan, which would make great gifts for the anime fan or general Japan-lover on your Christmas list this year. If you're wondering what to get the anime fan on your list who has everything, we're sure we've got some great products, from our above-mentioned calendars to great toys and Totoro blankets and wacky T-shirts and our patented "wacky things from Japan." It is of course best to buy early so you can take advantage of cheaper shipping -- why not browse the site and make your order now?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The triumphant return of an old Japanese favorite, a milestone for my son, and a source of sadness in Japanese society

Imagine if a food you ate every day were suddenly unavailable, say, hamburgers, just to pick an example. With no more hamburgers available, restaurants would do their best with alternatives, bringing out, say, pork burgers or lamb burgers or veggie burgers. Consumers would probably be bummed about not being able to order their favorite food, but they'd muddle through somehow. This is basically what happened when Mad Cow Disease fears caused Japan to halt all imports of beef from the U.S., which rendered one of Japan's most popular dishes, gyudon or beef bowl, extremely rare. Beef bowl is the quintessential home-grown fast food in Japan, a simple dish of stewed beef and onions on steaming hot rice that costs around $3.50 and can be wolfed down in about two minutes -- I like mine with raw egg poured over it so the rice sticks together nicely while eating with chopsticks. Restaurant chains like Yoshinoya served millions of bowls every day before it all came to a screeching halt two years ago, when the ban went into effect. Finally, though, beef imports have resumed and you can get a delicious bowl of the artery- clogging stuff once again. I was so happy to have my old friend back again, I had to snap a picture for posterity.

Japan is a great country, with beautiful temples and shrines, friendly people and a fascinating culature. Sadly, not everyone can see how wonderful Japan is, and far too many here choose the easy way out by committing suicide. It seems that every day brings bizarre news of people who make this sad choice: a family of four in a strange suicide pact...a woman who lost her fiancee in the terrible train derailment last year and wanted to be with of guards at the Imperial Palace. One terrible source of anguish are students who are the recipients of ijime or bullying, such as one 13-year-old who took his own life as a result of abuse from the other kids on his basketball team. School-related suicides aren't always limited to the students, though. Last week, the principal of a high school in Ibaraki Prefecture, just up the road from us, committed suicide when it was reported that his school was foregoing teaching some required G.E. courses to better prepare students for the specific subjects that they'd need for the upcoming college entrance exams. I'm not sure what's different about Japan and most other countries when it comes to looking out for No. 1. Some odd symptom of post-industrial society? Latent cultural memories from the time when samurai committed seppuku? I personally think the answer lies in the lack of open communication and resistance to adopting a system for counseling people in need.

Now for some good news: my son passed level 2 of the Step Test, the primary test for measuring English ability in Japan. Like the Japanese Language Ability Test (JLPT) that foreigners study for, the Step Test is organized into multiple levels, with levels 4 for elementary school kids, level 3 for junior high, level 2 for high school and level 1 for college-age and professionals. My son hates it when people at his school assume that his English is good because he was born haafu (half), so he went all out to study for the test, despite the fact that he had to cover both English and the kanji for the Japanese parts of the test, as he's only in the 5th grade and hasn't learned high school kanji yet. As is often the case in Japan, the existence of a rival helped motivate him: he wanted more than anything to beat Kimishima-kun, a very smart boy in his class who has been studying at Kumon schools, which have a very good reputation here. Although I have been critical of Japan's reliance on testing and measuring in the past, I've come to see that having a series of goals for self improvement, be it learning a language, mastering typing or learning to use an abacus, is really a good thing. It'd be nice if a universal system of tests like this existed in the U.S. (other than in Boy and Girl Scouts, which is actually somewhat similar, in the way they encourage students to aim for higher ranks).

There's nothing quite as mysterious as kanji, the writing system used in Japan to express ideas, and Westerners are often fascinated with how this aesthetically beautiful pictographic system works. We've posted two new wacky Japanese T-shirt for kanji lovers, a great way to wear something really unique. The first shirt reads "Ganko," which means stubborn and hard-headed and unwilling to sacrifice one's ideals, a cool shirt if this describes you. Then there's "Ore-ryu," a word that literally means "My Style" or "Going My Way" (or alternately, "I'm doing my own thing my own damned way," depending on how deep you want to get with the translation). Two great new Japanese T-shirts for you!

It's here! It's here!

Ahhh, delicious, stewed beef on rice...

Time to show you some of the pictures from the Halloween bash that I've been forgetting to post. This girl was so cute!

The one on the right is Mozart.

Other students show off their costumes.

Here are my own. Anakin and Leia.

Here my son reinacts an exciting scene from Star Wars Episode II.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Foreign accents and how they work in Japan, daylight savings time in Japan, and the joy of root beer

A recent commercial featured a voice saying, nihon-jin wa urusai! which means that Japanese are loud and obnoxious and fussy. Was this an insult to Japanese consumers? Not at all -- the commercial, for Nescafe instant coffee, was actually saying that Japanese were picky when it came to how their coffee tasted, a good thing from their point of view. The voiceover was done using a foreigner speaking accented Japanese, which results in an interesting "otherness" that's just what the doctor ordered for advertisers looking for a way to subliminally tie their product to the image of exotic foreign lands. Just as different dialects can bring up different emotional responses in listeners -- the Imperial officers in Star Wars wouldn't seem so evil if they weren't speaking with British accents -- Japanese pronounced in a non-standard way can create unique settings for listeners. Another example is Suntory using a Chinese-accented voice to talk about how authentic its oolong tea is, or Lotte using a little girl speaking Finnish-accented Japanese to promote its gum with xylitol (which comes from Finland). It's quite common for radio DJ's to speak a strange English-influenced form of Japanese that makes them sound like foreigners, inflecting the usually flat tones with emotional highs and lows that makes the ear think it's listening to English even though the content is in Japanese. In this way, they've essentially created an artificial dialect of the language to go along with traditional ones like Osaka-ben, Kyoto-ben and so on.

There are two kinds of people, those who drink root beer and those who don't. Generally, Japanese fall into the second category, as the venerable American beverage tastes to them like Salonpas, a muscle cream similar to Bengay. My family loves the stuff, even my Japanese wife, who got tired of being teased by her kids and me as a nakama-hazure (nah-kah-mah HA-zoo-ray), or outsider, because she was the only one who couldn't drink root beer. Thanks to a company Kobe, the Foreign Buyers' Club, gaijin who live in Japan can get access to just about anything from the U.S., from Rice Crispies to Campbell's Soup to American peanut butter (they have Brit and Aussie stuff too). The only catch is, you have to buy in supermarket cases, which usually means buying 12 cans of refried beans, sixteen boxes of Hamburger Helper, that sort of thing. We just got our most recent order in, so we've got plenty of Raisin Bran, Aunt Jamaima pancake mix, and A&W for making root beer floats. Like most Asian countries, the Japanese are fond of their pickles, which include such varieties as pickled daikon radish, eggplant and the pickled kimchee octopus I had for dinner last night (really). Still, there's just no replacement for good old Vlassic dill spears from home, so I'm very happy to have a supplying my refrigerator right now.

If you're in North America you probably set your clock an hour back on Sunday. Most people grumble about having to remember to set their clocks forward and back in the spring and autumn, this isn't a problem in Japan, the only industrialized country that has not adopted the Daylight Savings Time system in one form or another. Instead, we have to deal with the other extreme -- if I stay up past 3 a.m. watching Japan's bizarre late-night TV or downloading the new episode of Battlestar Galactica from iTunes, I often get to go to sleep with the rising sun peeking in through the curtains.