Friday, November 10, 2006

What Japanese think of foreigners who learn their language, odd ways to get cell phone customers, and American politics seen through Japanese eyes

I'm often asked what the Japanese think of foreigners who go out of their way to learn the language. I guess the idea is that Japan, with its long and unique history that included 250 years of isolation from the rest of the world, might not always be happy that "foreign barbarians" are taking in their linguistic secrets. I've found that nothing could be further from the truth, and by and large, Japanese are always pleased to meet a foreigner who has learned their language. Most of them have gotten over the silly idea that Japanese is the most difficult language in the world, and they can even handle the idea of "white boy" foreigners being able to write kanji. Popular variety shows often include a token Japanese-bilingual foreigner who can make witty banter with the other "talents" and add a bit of spice to the show. Some of the more interesting guests include godfather of gaijin Dave "dyes his hair blonde, ha-ha" Spector, the attractive former model Caiya, and Wikki-san, a Sri Lankan who studied so hard he got into Tokyo University using the test that normal students take (not the easier one for us foreigners). Of course there is one downside to learning "too much" Japanese, that more than few gaijin out there will back me up on, I'm sure. It seems that the more nihongo you know, the less mysterious and attractive you can seem to some members of the fairer gender, and I've known foreigners who spoke less Japanese than I do to be more popular with girls than me (although YMMV, of course). Since this phenomenon doesn't seem to have an official name, I'll christen it Peter's Inverse Law of Japanese Learning and see if the label sticks.

Well, the U.S. elections are over, and the dust has been settling all week long. American politics are covered closely in Japan, as they are all over the world, and once again I got a strange out-of-body "gaijin experience" watching the coverage in the local language, not unlike the bizarreness of seeing an American football game with sportscasters giving the play-by-play in Japanese. America's system of government is quite unique in the world, and isn't well understood by most people here, so there was plenty of explanation about how the various aspects of our system works. In Japan, elections called immediately after, say, a vote of no confidence by the Diet, or the Prime Minister dissolving the Diet himself, as he did when he ran into opposition to his privatization of the post office last year. Only familiar with this system, my Japanese father-in-law mistakenly though the election meant a immediate change in President, which would have been the case here.

The decision to allow cell phone users to take their phone numbers with them when they change carriers has had a big effect on the industry, with Japan's "big three" phone companies trying to take market share away from each other. Mammoth NTT DoCoMo has the largest piece of Japan's multibillion portable phone industry, and they're under attack by rivals who are daring to actually compete head to head with them. Newly christened Softbank/Yahoo hired the sexy Cameron Diaz to pimp their new phones, which worked so well that the company had to stop taking new applications, as their system was quickly getting overloaded. But it was AU by KDDI that stole the most users away from competitors, grabbing 200,000 new customers in two weeks by directly touting their leadership in customer satisfaction. However, their choice of a hip rock song by the Stones for their commercials was a little odd, since "I can't get no...satisfaction" has the opposite meaning from what they seem to think it does -- which tells you how carefully Japanese listen to song lyrics. This reminds me of the time I went to a friend's wedding and they were playing "Alone Again, Naturally" by Gilbert O'Sullivan, basically the last song you'd ever expect to hear at such a setting.

You may have noticed those phone straps that we sell on J-List. These are "netsuke" (net-TSOO-keh), a Japanese tradition that started out as hand-carved good luck charms carried on the end of a draw-string money bags back in the Edo Period. When portable electronic gadgets like cell phones came along, Japanese adapted these traditional cute objects for the modern age, attaching them to just about anything from cameras to keys to Nintendo DS and Sony PSP. Today we've got some attractive "Kimono Netsuke" on the site, in a variety of colors and styles, with a single beautiful printed on each.

We're big fans of Dan Kim, creator of the many quality webcomics over at Clone Army. In addition to his "serious" works like Penny Tribute and Kanami, he does hilarious parody comics his classic take on the relationship between Sakura and Tomoyo from the CLAMP anime, called Tomoyo42's Room. Check out a great tribute to his creative works with two new shirts we've just released, a standard size and fitted girl's cap sleeve, featuring his great art.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Three Great Views of Japan, howling winds and volcanoes in my prefecture, and my wife's strange link to Monty Python

Quick, do you know how many Great Lakes there are on North America? The answer is five. The reason I know this is, the official name of the Great Lakes in Japanese is Go-daiko or the Five Great Lakes (五大湖 in Japanese). The Japanese can be really organized at times, and they like to codify things into little lists to make them easier to manage, not unlike the classic Seven Wonders of the World ranking. Have you read the Four Great Tragedies of Shakespere (四大悲劇)? I didn't know there only four of them, but this is the term the Japanese use to describe Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear. These "most famous" mini lists are positively legion in Japan, and no matter what subject you're interested in, there's probably a "best three" list for you. If you're planning a trip to Japan, you might want to hit the Nihon Sankei (日本三景), the Three Most Beautiful Views of Japan, which are the gnarled Japan Pines of Matsushima, the view from the top of Amano Hashidate Mountain in Kyoto and the floating arch at Miyajima. How about the Three Rare Delicacies of the World? Caviar, foie gras and truffles. The Three Great Soups? Bouillabaisse, Shark's Fin and Tom Yan Kung. How about the Three Great Guitarists of the world? Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. There is even an official listing for the Three Great Brands of Ham in the world. There's a Japanese Wikipedia page on this if you want to delve in deeper.

Right now the wind is howling outside my window, as winter lets us know that it's on its way. This wind is called kara-kaze, the dry, cold gale that races across the Kanto Plain this time of year. Gunma is a mostly mountainous prefecture in the center of the country's main island of Honshu, dominated by three large volcanic mountains, Akagi, Haruna and Asama. We're quite thankful for these mountains, since in addition to providing us with beautiful scenery, great skiing and a fun place to drive mountain roads while listening to Initial D background music with track names like "Speedy Speed Boy," they keep the majority of the winter snow on the Sea of Japan side of the country, away from Tokyo. The most active volcano around here is Mt. Asama, a hulking mass that can always be seen venting steam out of its cone. Mt. Asama had a major eruption in 1783, turning the local village of Komochi into "Japan's Pompeii" (and possibly one of the Three Great Volcano Disasters of Japan? I'll have to look that up). It erupted gain two years ago, essentially picking the entire Kanto area up and dropping it a meter or so down. There's something about living in Japan that makes you understand where the Shinto concepts of kami spirits who reside in mountains comes from...

Japan is all about politeness, and there are several linguistic and social mechanisms the Japanese have evolved to make human interaction go more smoothly here. One important concept is modesty (in Japanese, "kenson"), a trait that most everyone here values, which is why complimenting a Japanese person on how good their English is will generally result in strong statements of disagreement by the complimentee. The other day I was sitting in a coffee shop with my wife when we happened to see a neighbor who runs a small toy shop near us. What ensued was a brief war of politeness between my wife and our neighbor, with each side trying to verbally humble themselves before the other. "You have so many cars parked at your company. You must be doing well, to have so many employees," he'd say, and my wife would reply with something like, "Oh, but it's very hard running an online business since the Internet never stops for a holiday." She would then compliment him on the recent renovations to his shop and how nice they looked, whereupon he'd shoot back with, "But there are no customers, since few people pass our store, and every month we operate in the red." It went on for a while, both of them unknowingly channeling Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen sketch while I watched in amazement. The practice of putting one's self down as a way of raising others up is a fine art in Japan, and should only be attempted by skilled professionals -- don't try it at home.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Things that can always freak a gaijin out, the Japanese penchant for talking over songs on the radio and what is a "real house"?

No matter how long a person lives in Japan, there are always things that can bring on what expats here call a "Japan moment," the feeling of utter amazement at something you've just encountered. Maybe it's something cute, like a big truck playing the Main Street Electrical Street Parade song as it backs up instead of a boring beep-beep-beep sound, or that first time seeing the plastic Colonel Sanders in front of KFC wearing his "Santa Wear" (Santa Claus Suit). Maybe it's a food item, like strawberry and whipped cream sandwiches, or one I saw a few days ago, ham and cheese on French Toast, complete with syrup pre-applied to the bread. You never know what will bring on that sense of "only-in-Japan" next -- driving through an extremely rural town and coming across a replica of the American Statue of Liberty? Seeing a nondescript building with "Oh!" carefully painted on it? Meeting someone who has taught English for 30 years yet has never been outside of Japan, and who asks you "Where is your domicile?" instead of "Where do you live?" Of course, it's always important to remember Obi Wan's Law, that our perceptions depend on our point of view. Once we were having a rare feast of fajitas, and we'd invited a friend from Peru. Silly American that I am, I assumed that he'd be familiar with Mexican food, but it was all totally alien to him, and he'd never even seen a Mexican tortilla nor did he have any idea how to eat one.

There's another minor area of "gaijin shock" that has to do with listening the radio. The other day I was driving in my Mazda "Road-star" (Miata), and thought I'd give FM Gunma a listen. The announcer was about to play a famous song by singer Momoe Yamauguchi called Cosmos, supposedly the "most requested song in the Autumn." It was quite a beautiful tune, or it would have been, if the girl on the radio would have been so kind as to shut up and let her listeners hear the song. Instead, she yapped away, giving a detailed background of the song (it topped the charts in 1977), talked about the singer's career (debuted in 1972 on a talent show, retired in 1980, singing her live single "thank you for your kindness, thank you for your tenderness" amid many tears), and read some of the requests from listeners asking to hear the song. Call me a picky foreigner, but if the song's that good I'd like to actually hear it, not some radio personality talking while it's playing. I've asked Japanese people about this, and have been told "the Japanese don't listen to music all that carefully" and no one really cared if someone was talking while a song was playing. This is probably why no one but me takes exception to the Christmas music that invariably plays in February...

Oh goody, I managed to find the song in question in case you're dying to know what kind of song it is. The link is here (WMV and Windows required, it looks like, since I had to run this page in Parallels on my MacBook Pro to get it to work).

All societies go through changes as the decades march by, and Japan is no exception. While the U.S. has wrestled with shifts in the "post" nuclear family due to increases in divorce and single parenting, one rock that has helped Japan's society is the importance of the jikka (JI-kah, pronunced with a small pause between the syllibles, a "small tsu"). Literally meaning "real house," a jikka is the house where one's parents live, or where they lived if they've passed on. It's also the location of the family's Buddhist Altar, a wooden altar with a figure of Buddha inside that's used for saying prayers and lighting incense for dead ancestors and let them know they haven't been forgotten. At certain times during the year, mainly New Years' Day and the August Obon holidays, people return home to be with family at their jikka, and so on, not unlike going home for Thanksgiving but with a lot more cultural formality.

For fans of the interactive dating-sim games published by Hirameki International, we're happy to announce that Yo-Jin-Bo -The Bodyguards- is in stock and shipping now. A great English-translated anime game for your PC or Mac, in this game you take on the role of Sayori, an ordinary high school student who is magically transported back in time to Japan in the feudal ages. Your goal is to save the lovely Hatsuhime, princess of the Mochizuki clan, from assassination, and you'll have three eccentric but loyal bodyguards ("yojimbo" in Japanese) to help. It's an incredibly deep game with a huge cast of interesting characters and a great story. Get your copy now!

Remember, now is the best time to select your 2007 Japanese calendars, since we've just gotten in a huge volley of items in stock, including many calendars that won't be coming in again before they sell out for the season. In case you were wondering what the top-selling calendars are this year, we'll tell you. For anime calendars, the Ghibli calendar is in the lead as usual, followed by the Shirow Masamune offering (the first in several years) and strong showings by Negima and Bleach. For traditional and art calendars, the beautiful kimono paintings of Haruyo Morita is in the lead, followed by Traditional Scroll Illustrations, the Joy of Bento and Famous Castles of Japan. We sell plenty of cute Japanese idol calendars, and this year Aki Hoshino, Yuko Ogura and Yua Aida are all doing great. Finally, "other" calendars that are very popular this year include Domo-kun, Gackt and that old standby, Japanese women in traditional onsen hot springs. Check out our stock of calendars now!