Friday, November 24, 2006

Education and high school dropouts in Japan, Japanese in touch with their history, and the biggest shock Japanese get when they go to the U.S.

I caught a post on Slashdot the other day about a surge in high school dropouts in the U.S., and was saddened at the news. In Japan, compulsory education covers six years of elementary school and three years of junior high school, and during that time the basics that everyone needs to know are taught -- math, social studies, kanji, morals, learning to respect your senpai, and so on. High school has never been required, and there's nothing keeping a sixteen year old who has something better to do with his time from not going on past the 9th year of school. Just the same, there's a heavy stigma -- the dreaded label chu-sotsu (中卒) meaning a graduate of junior high school -- against anyone who doesn't make it through high school, and the vast majority of students (96%) do go on. High schools in Japan function as a miniature version of the university system complete with entrance exams, and competition for the best schools -- Takasaki High and Maebashi Girl's School are the highest- ranked in our prefecture -- is fierce, requiring years of preparation to get in. Just as with universities, it's possible for students to aim too high and fail all their tests, and become a ronin, a word which used to mean masterless samurai but which now refers to a student who is in temporary limbo while he prepares for next year's tests.

When Japanese people go to the U.S. they're amazed at the variety of foods available in supermarkets, especially the staggering number of breakfast cereals. "In SAFEWAY, many kinds of corn flakes about one hundred have overpowered me," one of my former ESL students wrote at the time. "I felt a difference of the staple foods." In Japan, gaijin might say the same about the instant ramen, with supermarkets and convenience stores brimming with various brands of noodles in every shape, size, and taste. Instant ramen came into being in 1958 with the introduction of Chicken Ramen by Nissin, and the convenience of noodles that could be stored easily and eaten anytime made them an instant hit, if you'll forgive the pun. Today many large companies compete to bring the best noodle products to market, including such favorites as Nissin's popular Cup Ramen line, the delicious Akai Kitsune Udon ("Red Fox" noodles with fried tofu in each package, yum), and even high-end brands that cost $5 or more per serving. Some numbers for you: Japan eats 5.4 billion servings of instant noodles per year (42 per person on average), the amount of flour used to make this ramen would fill up half of Tokyo Dome, and there are 983 registered brands of instant noodles on the market. I can personally attest to the profitability of instant ramen. During my ESL days, I happened to teach English to the wife of the former president of the Sapporo Ichiban Company, and her house was easily the most beautiful building I've seen outside of Kyoto. Instead of learning any English, we'd often sit in her unspeakably gorgeous tatami room speaking Japanese, drinking green tea and eating delicious manju cakes. This is basically the holy grail of ESL teaching, to find rich people and get them to pay you while they teach you Japanese rather than the other way around.

The other night I went downstairs to my parents liquor shop to get something -- the Japanese custom of building shops and homes together can be quite convenient when you run out of soy sauce or coffee filters or beer, since you've usually got what you need right there in the store. My wife's father and mother were watching a jidai geki, or a historical drama, in this case about the years leading up to the Battle of Sekigahara, where Ieyasu Tokugawa finally defeated his enemies and unified the country under his shogun banner. They were having a very deep discussion about the actions of the main character, an underling of Tokugawa, and how he narrowly saved the day for his lord. Like Westerns back in the 1950's, samurai period dramas are a popular genre of television, with many different shows produced for all ages. The most famous jidai geki on TV is the megabudget Taiga Drama that NHK produced each year, telling dramatic stories from a different part of Japan's past. Perhaps it has to do with higher average age of Japanese people, but it seems they have a lot more interest in their history than folks from the States could ever conceive of, and even younger people like my wife can take quite an active interest in events 400 or more years ago.

J-List carries hundreds of delicious and fun to eat snack items from Japan, including Pocky & Pretz, Pucca chocolate-filled fish-shaped pretzels, candy sushi, and unique varieties of Kit Kat only sold in Japan. Today we're posting this year's first Melty Kiss, the yummy fudge cubes from Meiji that are not only delicious, they've got one of the strangest names of any product we sell. This year's Melty Kiss is excellent, with the delicate taste of cocoa powder on the outside and rich fudge on the inside. Look for Precious Cacao and Strawberry on the site now.

Because I'm late with the daily post, I'll give you some pictures. Here is a giant offering to the goddess Yuko Ogura. Bummer that the power lines had to get in the way...

Outside our window the other day, a real rainbow! There is hope for us all!

Wao! It's a banana!

In reality, it's a banana shaped cake with banana cream inside, packaged in a gift box for giving as omiyage (souvinirs).

Christmas Cake. Do you have yours ordered yet? To our friends in the UK, I know the core concept for this comes from your side of the pond, or specifically from Scotland or something like that, but do you guys have shops marketing Christmas Cakes all over the place?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Being an American in Japan during Thanksgiving, subtleties of Japanese pronunciation, and a cultural lesson for PSP owners

By and large, an American expat living in Japan has two choices when it comes to celebrating Thanksgiving: completely forget about it, or get a bucket of "Kentucky" for the family and pretend it's delicious oven-roasted turkey. Thanksgiving is, of course, an event that's quite unique to the U.S., and since Japanese stores generally lack stuffing, gravy, pumpkin pie filling and all those other good things, it can be awfully hard to get into the spirit of the season. Just the same, you can give thanks for all the good things you have no matter where you live in the world, and this year my family and I are going to take on the challenge of having a real American Thanksgiving in Japan, with a turkey (imported from Australia), cranberry sauce (sent by my mother), sushi (brought over by a friend of ours) and other good things to eat. It won't be completely traditional, but we'll make do somehow. We hope everyone in the U.S. has a wonderful holiday!

When you live in a country as different from your home as Japan is from the U.S., the potential for culture shock is everywhere, even in video games. I ordered Lumines II from the States since I'd enjoyed first version so much, but when I slapped the U.S. release game into my PSP and started playing, something felt strange to me -- for some odd reason, I was having trouble navigating the menus, and kept jumping back to the title screen instead of starting the game. It turns out that, due to differences in how Japanese perceive the symbols X and O compared with the West, Sony had switched the button functions around. While X probably corresponds pretty easily with the idea of "execute" to most Americans, in Japan it's known as batsu and it means "bad" or "no" (as an esoteric aside, a person who's been divorced once is batsu ichi, if twice then batsu ni, and so on). Meanwhile, the circle (maru in Japanese) is the universal symbol for "correct" or "yes" or "good" in Japan, and is the natural choice to mean "accept this menu selection." When a teacher marks answers on a test, she draws circles over the correct answers, and if the student got a good grade, she draws a hana maru or a big flower with a circle inside, the highest praise a teacher can give. Maru sounds lucky, and ships are usually christened with the word as part of their names (although it wasn't all that lucky for the Kobayashi Maru). But perceptions are fleeting things. When a finance company called Maru-Fuku opened near our house, I commented that the name gave me a bad feeling, since mal means "evil" in Spanish, and fuku (good fortune) sounded like "hook" to me. My wife had exactly the opposite impression of the company, telling me that the name sounded to her like it would bring "happiness and good luck to every corner of your home."

Would you like a dorink with that cheeseburger? How about a pair of Edowin jeans? Last weekend I took my kids for a dorive. One of the unique features of Japanese is that it's a syllable-based language, which means that you can express syllables like ka, ki, ku, ke and ko but not a "k" sound by itself. This is part of the reason that the Japanese often have thick accents when speaking foreign languages, since everything must be filtered through this limited phonetic system. The syllable-based pronunciation also has an effect on how some words are used in Japanese, for example, causing the "d" consonant to be expressed as a separate sound, do (doh, as in a deer, a female deer, or what Homer Simpson says), which alters the sound of word like "drink" "Edwin" and "drive" (above) ever so slightly. Just as Japanese anime has been accepted all over the world, there are many fans of Japanese TV dramas, which are invariably called "doramas" by fans due to this slight quirk of phonetics in Japanese.

J-List's "reserve subscription" system is a great way to get the current issues of dozens of popular anime, manga, toy & hobby, fashion and other magazines sent to you each month. Whether you're thrilling at the amazing number of pull-out posters in each issue of Megami Magazine, feeling the pulse of Japan's gothic cosplay or Harajuku street fashion culture, or just checking out the latest in J-Rock, our subscriptions really make it easy to stay in touch with Japan. By customer request, we're giving you a choice now: in addition to the month-to-month revolving subscription we've always offered, you can choose our new annual option, pre-paying a discounted flat fee for one year worth of issues, with SAL shipping included in the price. We originally put the annual subscription in place for libraries and other institutions that prefer to pay once per year (and we're happy to serve these customers), but decided to extend the option to everyone to make it easier than ever to get great magazines from Japan.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Coming to Japan from San Diego, changing Japanese views on alcohol, and Japan Autumn Report

Coming to Japan meant adjusting to many new things, from vending machines that accept the equivalent of $100 bills then bow to you in thanks after you make a purchase to learning that there's a time and a place to pop that little baby octopus in your mouth without thinking about it. I also had to learn to live in a much colder place than my former home of San Diego, California. Of course, just about every place in the world is colder in the winter than Santa Ana-blessed San Diego, where the definition of "frigid" means having to wear long sleeves in the evenings, but learning to stay warm in Japan was a lot different than if I'd just moved to, say, Boston. Following my mother's sage advice about dressing in layers helped, but the problem was really more of a cultural one. The Japanese don't have central heating, and would consider the idea of heating an entire house wasteful. Instead, you heat just the room you're using, usually with a kerosene-electric "fan heater" or a wall-mounted air conditioner (and yes, it does take time to get used to the idea of an air conditioner producing heat). Another popular option is to use a kotatsu (koh-TA-tsoo), basically a table with a blanket over it and a heater inside. Stick your legs under the blanket and you'll be as toasty as you could want to be, which works great until a family member is flatulent inside the kotatsu (one of its few drawbacks).

Most weekends my family and I can be found up in the mountains around Karuizawa, soaking up the healing power of the onsen hot springs and enjoying the "vibrant nature" of central Japan. It's a nice time to drive in the mountains right now, since the leaves on the trees are exploding in fireworks of red, yellow and brown as autumn passes through the country. The Japanese are quite happy about having four distinct seasons, as if it were the only place on Earth to have that honor, and many people make special trips to remote regions to take in the beauty of the leaves as they change color, which is called koyo in Japanese (meaning "crimson leaves"). The other day I noticed that Yahoo Japan has an interactive "Koyo Map" allowing you to check the current leaf status of each part of the country so you'll know what kind of view you'd find there. Just as the symbol of spring is the sakura, or cherry blossom, the beauty of autumn is captured in the momiji (moe-MEE-JEE), the Japanese maple, a beautiful image of Japan in the Fall.

As a rule, the Japanese are rather fond of their spirits, and enjoy a wide range of recreational alcoholic beverages, from sake to beer to one of my favorite drinks, a Grapefruit Sour, a glass of a gin-like alcohol called shochu which comes with half a grapefruit and a juicer, requiring you to extract the juice and pulp and add it to your drink. The last decade has seen a long-term boom in the popularity of wine in Japan, with many people developing a taste for red wines from all over the world, in part to promote good health. Even the humble liquor shop that my wife's parents run has seen quite a transformation in recent years, with the share of traditional sake in the store shrinking (partially due to our sake-buying customers dying of old age) and being replaced by imported wines. My wife and I are signed up with a company that sends us six bottles of wine from a different part of Europe every month, complete with information on the region -- I like to read through the newsletters they send and get a feel for how "winespeak" in Japanese compares with English (it's pretty funny, but not in any way I could ever communicate to you). Every year the Japanese go quite ga-ga over the beaujolais nouveau, a traditional wine from France that goes on sale at midnight on the third Thursday of November, which is transported in huge quantities to Japan by air cargo. I'll have to see about getting a few bottles and give this year's vintage a taste.

J-List has always supported Japan's PC dating-sim games, making sure we stock all English-translated bishoujo games so that fans around the world could experience this fun interactive media from Japan. We're extremely happy to announce that one of the most anticipated anime games to come along in years, Yin-Yang! X-Change Alternative, has been declared "Golden Master" and will be shipping very soon. In this game you play Kaoru, a Japanese boy who possesses a unique form of "yin-yang" DNA that is both male and female. When he accidentally drinks a potion that serves as a catalyst, he's surprised to find his body transformed into that of a girl, which is only the start of all the strange things that are going to happen to him.