Friday, December 01, 2006

The role of trains in Japan, funny observations on society here, and Christmas comes early

Japan is a very rail-centric place compared to the U.S., and trains are a much larger part of society than they are back home, at least from the point of view of this California yank. Trains are more convenient the closer you live to a large city, of course, and you can get anywhere in Tokyo in a short time thanks to its complex network of rail and subway lines. Trains are nice to have when you're out drinking with friends, since you can all get home safely without worrying about driving. Out in the "inaka" (ee-NAH-KAH, i.e. the boonies) where we live, trains are only used to get from one city to another, and are only convenient if you happen to be going somewhere near your target station. Still, even in small cities like ours, train stations play a large role in defining the commercial and cultural identity of a city. Nearby Takasaki is a commercial hub for our prefecture, and their station is gleaming white, with many shops located right inside the station for convenience. Our own home of Isesaki is famous for having the lowest "cultural level" of any city in the area, as defined by membership rates in groups like the Japan Rotarians and the Lion's Club or something like that (it's all quite over my head), and our run-down, ugly train station reflects our city's mediocrity.

It's funny how east mirrors west sometimes. Many people from Europe and the U.S. are taken with Japan, with the mystery of the place and the many ways it delights us by never being predictable. In a similar fashion, the Japanese have had a fascination with the West ever since Commodore Perry sailed his black ships into Yokohama Bay in 1853. You can see Japan's tendency to look culturally to Europe when you look at iconic buildings like Tokyo Tower (an exact replica of the Eiffel Tower) and Tokyo Station (a recreation of the Amsterdam Centraal Station). Similarly, it's interesting to see the way they define their own land in relation to the West, declaring the seaside in Chiba to be the Dover Cliffs of Japan, the main mountain range in the country the Japan Alps, and so on. If I want to get out and feel like I've travelled the world I can go to Kronenberg, a replica of a German village complete with beer, sausages and embarrassed-looking Germans standing around; visit Western Village, an old west town that features cowboys and a miniature version of Mt. Rushmore looking down on the freeway; or even go see the replica of the Statue of Liberty down by Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo (it's quite a "date spot"). Comparing cultures is so much fun!

Peter as Santa-san!

Christmas came a little early to the kids at a preschool near J-List as "Santa-san" dropped in for a visit this morning. It was really me in that suit (ssh, don't tell the kids), fulfilling my annual role as the cheerful St. Nick as I handed out presents to everyone. Christmas is a very bright and happy time in Japan, and no Christmas Party would be complete without a real live gaijin Santa Claus there to make everyone laugh. There was a question and answer time, where the kids asked me such questions as, "Where do you live?" (er, Norway), "What is your favorite color?" (red) and "What is your favorite food?" ("reindeer hamburg steak"). As usual, I made sure not to break character by speaking Japanese, and it was great to see them using the universal English phrases "Thank you," "How are you?" and "What is your hobby?" with me, so happy to be actually using English for communication.

We're still rolling out the new features to the J-List website. The (still beta) J-List Wish List is shaping up nicely, and we've added the ability to move items in your shopping cart over to your Wish List for later purchase, so you won't forget about it if you want it get it later. Wish Lists can be made public so you can tell friends or family what you'd like them to get for you, post it on your blog, or just show off your list of cool items for anyone who wanders in. One small warning though: many items at J-List are limited in stock, and if you leave an item in your wish list for too long, it might not be available next time you go to get it. Feedback on the new system

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Multiple meaning of "wa," raising bilingual kids, and what cute culture has to do with the rock band KISS.

Many English speakers know the Japanese word wa (和) which means harmony and peace, and in some cases additionally refers to the country of Japan itself. But there's a similar word wa (輪) that's probably more important to daily life in Japan. The other wa means ring, hoop, or circle, and is the word most used to describe a circle of friends or some other group of mutual acquaintances. The Japanese are, of course, a very group-oriented people, and there are mechanisms in place for ensuring that relationships work smoothly all around. Back in my teaching days, I observed that every Japanese seems to have at least two sets of core friends: those they've known since elementary and junior high school, which are where compulsory education in Japan ends; and a different set of friends who they met in high school. Since everyone chooses a high school that's right for his or her own academic level and future goals, it's rare for groups of friends to make the jump from junior high to high school intact. If a friend from one group encounters someone from a different group, politeness shields go up on all sides, and everyone becomes very stiff and formal, since acting too friendly with someone not already known to you personally would come across as very cheeky.

Japan definitely has an affinity for all things kawaii (cute), which is often a source of entertainment. Yesterday I went to the local electronics store, Plug City, to buy a new digital camera for our staff. The camera I selected was Canon's EOS Kiss Digital X, the Japanese version of the Digital Rebel XTi. I was amused to see the box the camera came in, which featured four gaijin kids painted to look like the KISS musicians, with Godzilla in the background -- it was much more wacky and eye-catching than the subdued packaging I'm sure they use in the U.S. You can see this approach to cute culture in the normally dreary manuals for electronic products too, which show anime-esque versions of electronic components smiling with glee when operated correctly, wearing puzzled expressions for the help section and sweating profusely in the chapter that tells you not to use this device above a certain temperature. Another aspect of Japan's cute culture is the style known as "SD" or "super deformed," basically a subset of the standard anime character design that features exaggerated features like an oversized head on a body that's too small. TV commercials featuring actors with super-cute deformed bodies and oversized heads are likewise a staple of advertising in Japan.

One of the great things about having kids is, you get to watch them at various stages as they grow up. I've enjoyed seeing my son and daughter (currently 11 and 10) moving through each phase of their lives as they grow and change. Unlike most children, my kids have had to deal with learning two languages, English and Japanese. When kids are small, it's quite hard to separate which language is which -- I'll never forget the image of my daughter in a toy store in the U.S., trying to talk to another child in Japanese and wondering why they didn't understand her, or when my son commented that the cold-water bath at the hot springs we had just visited was "cold-katta," mixing the English word "cold" with the past tense ending for adjectives in Japanese. Of course once kids reach a certain age, learning languages becomes child's play ('scuze the pun), and it wasn't long before my wife and I found ourselves being surpassed linguistically by our offspring. Now my son won't let his mother help him with his English homework, since some of the answers she gave him before turned out to be wrong.

J-List carries an extensive line of popular T-shirts and hoodies that feature unique messages in kanji, cool anime character designs from Japan and more, a great way to bring an esoteric bit of Japan into your life. We've got a new design going up on the site today: the super-cute Soot Sprite from Totoro (in Japanese, Makkuro Kurosuke), one of the most loveable images from anime.

We've been working on improvements to the J-List website all week long, upgrading our server for increased speed and working on some new features we hope you'll like. First and foremost, we're happy to announce the much- requested Wish List system is going up today. Since we have so many products at J-List, it can be hard to find all the items you want to look at, and now you have the option of adding items either to your shopping cart, or instead placing them in your Wish List, a permanent list of products you can browse at any time. By default the list is private and only viewable by you, but you have the option of making your list public, and even adding your own text to the list, inviting readers to buy the items for you. Feedback on the new J-List Wish List feature is appreciated! (Note: the feature should be considered beta since we're still rolling it out. I decided to go home at 2 am...)

Monday, November 27, 2006

More info on how schools work in Japan, a sumo wrestling update and 40 years of Ultraman

Last time I talked about how education in Japan worked, especially high school, which is optional for students here -- they can choose not to go without any penalty, although most know they'd be fools not to get an education while they can. Since high schools operate like a miniature version of the university system, competition for students creates a real incentive for educators to offer a solid program, and any school whose academic reputation declines will face a drop-off in the number of students that choose to come there. High schools specialize, too, with "college prep" schools for students intending to go to university, "commercial" schools that offer a more practical education for those who'll be entering the work force, and even an agricultural high school near our city. As with universities, some high schools are run by a city or prefecture while others are private institutions, and it's the lower-cost public schools that are most in demand. (A brief aside: the Japanese staff of J-List just told me they had all assumed that the reason Harvard was so popular was because it was the cheapest school in America. Woah, culture shock.) The choice of which high school to apply for can be an important one for young people, and I've seen quite a few 15 year olds who seemed mature beyond their years as they reflected seriously on what high school choice would best serve them in the future. Currently many of Japan's college-oriented high schools are getting in trouble for not teaching all the required hours of coursework, offering lessons targeted at what students will face on their college entrance exams rather than what the Ministry of Education has ordered them to teach.

Happy Birthday to Ultraman, who turned 40 years old this year. Along with Godzilla, Astro Boy and Johnny Sokko and his darned Egyptian-looking Flying Robot that practically no one remembers anymore, Ultraman was of the most famous early ambassadors of Japanese popular culture to the world. Created by Eiji Tsuburaya, the mastermind behind the special effects in the Godzilla movies, Ultraman was very ground-breaking, with high budgets and gorgeous special effects, for 1966, anyway. The story of a rubber-suited hero from Nebula M78 who comes to Earth disguised as mild-mannered Shin Hayata, and who transforms with that cool "flying punch at the camera" effect whenever he's needed, the Ultraman series went on through a total of 20 generations, featuring such characters as Ultraman Seven (the most popular series with die-hard otaku), Ultraman Powered (he's from America, and has blue eyes to prove it) and evil Ultraman Agul. When my son was small we watched all the Ultraman series of the day together -- my favorite was Ultraman Gaia, which was cool because of its story arcs, including one about a TV reporter who suspected the main character's secret identity and kept trying to catch him as he did his transformation. Ultraman is so famous, even the monsters he banishes are household names here, from lobster-shaped Baltan to the metal-eating Kanegon and my own favorite, the psychedelic-looking Dada.

Well, Asashoryu (ah-sah-sho-RYU, and no, that's not the "shoryu" from "shoryuken" in Street Fighter II, I checked) has pulled another stunning victory out of his topknot. The Mongolian wrestler pounded 15 opponents in the Kyushu Tournament to receive his 19th win over the weekend. Sumo wrestling (just called "sumo" in Japanese) is the national sport of Japan, receiving special status and support from the government. It's an incredibly old sport, practiced since prehistoric times in Japan, and taking its more modern form in the Edo Period. There are six tournaments held during the year, four in Tokyo and one each in Kyushu and Nagoya three in Tokyo and one each in Kyushu, Nagoya and Osaka, each consisting of 15 days of bouts, with each wrestler going up against a different opponent each day. The current record holder is the famous Taiho, the half Japanese, half-Russian wrestler who won 32 bouts in his career from 1961-1971. I wonder if Asashoryu will be able to beat this score? (Note: if you're a sumo fan, our Yokozuna T-shirt is really a cool esoteric item.)

The holiday shopping season is upon us, and J-List is ready to get your order out to you with speedy speed -- whatever you need, make your order now and we'll get it on its way to you with no delay. I asked the J-List staff to come up with the items they thought were best for gift-giving, and they came up with the following short list of recommendations:

  1. Case of Black Black caffeine gum (great for caffeine addicts)
  2. J-List Best Seller Snack Set (or mix and match your own)
  3. Hidamari no Tami or Unazukin toys (great for friends at the office)
  4. Joke gift like our Japanese actress blow-up dolls (great gag item)
  5. Totoro or Cat Bus plush (they're so soft, they'll be appreciated for years)
  6. Huggable Domo-kun Pillows (Japan's cutest monster)
  7. Toilet paper (Hello Kitty, kanji) (they'll never see this gift coming)
  8. Subscription to a Japanese magazine (we now offer annual subscriptions)
  9. "In emergency, commit seppuku along the dotted line" T-shirt (or choose from 70 other shirt items)
  10. A handy J-List gift certificate

Some more pics from Japan, since I had them open. This is a trip to Toys R Us for a little girl's birthday. Here we see that Nintendo DS's are *still* sold out. If you have any Sony stock, dump it!

She wanted a Licca-chan doll so I had to pick one. I didn't get the one that said "Sweet Cherry" on the front, since it seemed a little too modern for me.

If I were a doll buyin' man, this is the one I'd have gotten for myself. In the end, I went for a Licca nurse since my daugher likes to pretend her stuffed animals are burn victims then heal them, or something.

Got any Micronauts fans reading today? It was a toy line from Mego, produced with Takara doing the Japan end. Micronauts faded into obscurity inthe 1970s in the States, but has been going strong here -- kind of like an alternate Micronauts universe. This is a rather twisted item, a female Acroyear (which isn't so odd if you read the outstanding Marvel Micronauts comics back in the day, but even fewer out there have to have read them).

Wow, dig that parasol, and those breasts.

Have they actually not exported this part of Japan to the U.S. yet? I mean, games where you put in 100 yen and get a card you can collect and play a game with are so huge here. I'm surprised they haven't put these in stores yet.

Hey' I've seen that before!