Friday, December 08, 2006

Good things and bad about living in Japan, more ways Japanese look to the West, and social benefits of love hotels

There are a lot of good things about living in Japan. Good food, from sushi to sashimi to Indian curry. Wholesome, polite people, with that important "you know no one is horking in your food behind your back" factor. Kawaii Japanese girls. Reading a novel while taking an extended dip in the onsen bath. However, living in Japan is not all cherry blossoms and Mt. Fuji, and there are some downsides to being here too. One of the worst aspects to living in Japan for many is dealing with allergies. We have the Japanese government to thank for much of the problem, for standardizing all forestry around the sugi (Japan Cedar) and replacing natural forests with one easy-to-harvest tree, which means that when it's time for the trees to pollinate, they do it all at once, creating an unbearable situation for millions of people with allergies. In addition to the awful months of sugi pollen, Japanese homes can be quite high maintenance when it comes to removing dust. Much as I love our tatami mats, they're very difficult to keep clean, and dust mites love to live inside the fibers -- hyakushon!

I wrote recently about Japan's fixation with the West, which has been a consistent theme in the nation's history since it began modernizing in the Meiji Period (1868-1912). The phenomenon is known as seiyo suhai shugi, literally "worship of the West-ism," and it pops up in daily Japanese life in many forms. Most Japanese seem to take it for granted that the culture in the U.S. and Europe, while by no means perfect, is somehow on a "higher level" than Japan, and social and economic reforms generally seem to lag behind the West by about a decade as leaders take their cues from the U.S. and Britain. One way this fascination with the West manifests itself is the burning desire in many who have achieved a certain level of success in their fields to translate that success over to the West. When business leaders believe they've finally "arrived" and have achieved whatever goals they'd set for themselves, many invariably decide to expand into the U.S. market, and since this is driven by their own personal desire to "make it" in the USA rather than on dispassionately collected market data, it can lead to less than optimal results. Hideo Nomo changed the sports world forever when he proved that a Japanese could make it in Big Leagues, and now top players in every sport from Ichiro and Matsui to Nakamura kicking the ball over in Ireland feel incomplete if they don't play overseas. Likewise, it seems that once a Japanese singer attains a certain level of success, they'll often start to pine for a U.S. debut. This is what 80s superstar Seiko Matsuda did, trying to bill herself as the "Japanese Madonna" in her U.S. release, complete with her wearing an exact replica of the "Lucky Star" outfit on the CD cover. The most recent Japanese artist to try to make it in the West is Utada, aka Hikaru Utada, who recently released an all-English album for fans outside of Japan. I'm a longtime fan of her songs, and I hope it works out for her.

One of the more famous recent images of Japan are its "love hotels," those interesting establishments which provide privacy for couples who would otherwise have no place to go to be alone. They're known by many names, including avec, tsurekomi yado, and motel (which causes plenty of confusion when Japanese go to the U.S. for the fist time), but the industry seems to be encouraging the term "fashion hotel" to promote a more positive image for the 21st century. For $40 (a 3 hour "rest") or $80 (an overnight "stay"), couples can enjoy an intimate experience with total privacy, complete with separate elevators for incoming and outgoing guests and a pneumatic tube system that lets you pay without ever meeting anyone. Generally located around the outskirts of Japanese cities or near freeway on-ramps, love hotels are often centered around a theme, like the Taj Mahal or Cinderella's Castle or Alcatraz Prison. (I'm holding for a room based on the final scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, complete with Monolith and space pod.) While the pragmatic concept of love hotels might seem odd to some, I believe they serve an important role in society here, and even help keep families from disintegrating. In the U.S., an eighteen-year-old boy who gets a girlfriend has an incentive to move out with her, perhaps making mistakes that both will regret down the road. But in Japan, where kids stay in the nest well into their 20s (and if they're the oldest son or daughter, live with their parents forever, taking over the family home and business, if there is one), everyone has access to all the privacy they could need.

J-List carries an excellent line of original T-shirts and super-soft hoodies featuring amusing kanji messages and cool anime designs, which are great for anyone on your holiday list. We carry XXL and XXXL sizes of some of our major shirts, so our larger customers can get in on the run, too. We're happy to announce that we've lowered the prices on these extra sizes, to just $1 for the XXL shirts, and $2.50 for the 3XL shirts.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Thoughts on ordering "peanuts butter," a tasty Japanese treat in the winter, and a friend who can't receive New Year's Cards

You know you've been in Japan too long when your mother sends you a bottle of nutmeg spice for Christmas, and a Japanese person asks what it is, upon which you immediately answer, without having ever heard what the spice is called in Japanese, "This is nutsmeg, which is great in warm milk." For some inexplicable reason of phonetics, some English words are imported into Japanese in their plural forms. Words like shirt, suit, swimsuit, peanut, and sport always appear with the 's' sound on the end, even if you're discussing the word in its singular form. In Japanese, one refers to a suitcase as a "suitscase," and it takes the brain a few months to get over the weirdness of this -- ditto for learning to ask for "peanuts butter." Similarly, the anime Fruits Basket probably weirded a lot of fans out at first when they first heard the title. There seem to be three reasons for some English words being mapped to their plural versions in Japanese. First is the rather convenient lack of singular/plural in Japanese grammar -- saying hana ga kirei means either "the flower is pretty" or "the flowers are pretty" depending on how many flowers you happen to discussing. Also, the softer tsu ending on the plural forms is easier for Japanese to pronounce than a hard t consonant sound. Finally, converting some words to their plural forms also avoids the dreaded L/R confusion that can be a problem in the language. Because "fruit" and "flute" would have the exact same pronunciation when rendered in katakana, the writing system used for expressing foreign loan words, the musical instrument became furu-to and the edible stuff became furu-tsu.

A photographer that J-List has a relationship with came up in conversation in the office the other day. "Oh, he's mo-chu this year," my wife said, "so we can't send him a New Year's Card." It was a word I'd never heard before, so my ears perked up immediately -- it turned out to be formal state of mourning due to the death of a family member within the past year. By far, the most important holiday to the Japanese is Oshogatsu, New Year's Day, and part of the fun is receiving nengajo, or New Years Cards. But because of whatever sadness visited his family this year, we're unable to send him a New Year's Card. Also, when you see someone for the first time after Jan. 1st, you greet them with akemashite omedetou gozaimasu, literally "congratulations on opening the new year," but it's taboo to use this greeting for someone who has had a death in the family the previous year.

Do you hear that? It's the sound of our local "ishi-yaki imo" (ee-shee YA-kee ee-MOH, or stone-baked sweet potato) vendor, driving around outside my window now. Like an ancient Japanese version of the Ice Cream Man, baked sweet potato vendors meander through the streets with their special trucks which contain ovens that are constantly baking the sweet potatoes over heated stones so that they're steaming hot and delicious. Like getting a nikuman (meat-filled Chinese bun) from a convenience store or holding a hot can of coffee on a train platform, baked sweet potatoes are a great way to warm up when it's cold outside. When Americans see dead leaves raked into a pile, most probably think of taking a flying leap into the leaves. But in Japan, a pile of dead leaves is the perfect place to bake your own foil-wrapped sweet potatoes, and you can see this happening quite often in the cooler months. I love the sound of the song they sing (see video).

J-List is your source for cool T-shirts with aesthetically cool kanji characters, hilarious messages and cool original anime designs. We've posted our newest T-shirts today, featuring the cute image of the Kodama from Princess Mononoke by Hayao Miyazaki, on shirts for guys and girls. Like all J-List T-shirts, these new additions are hand-printed by our experienced staff in San Diego, and all sizes are full U.S. standard sizes. Why not browse our extensive line of cool original T-shirts and Hoodies? (They also make great holiday gifts.)

Do you have a blog or other website? Would you like to help us spread our brand of fun Japanese popular culture? If so, we hope you'll consider joining the Friends of J-List, our affiliate program (although we hate to use marketingspeak words like that). It's easy to show exactly the J-List products you want to show, and link to exactly the products you want to link to, and you get cash or store credit for every sale. For more information read this page.

Remember that J-List is having its first ever Domo-kun Free Shipping Sale, a great excuse for you to get that Really Big Domo-kun plush for your room and save big (yes, the sale applies to all Domo items, even big ones like that need to be sent via EMS). We personally think the Standard Domo-kun Plush is just about the coolest thing from Japan, and I'm sure friends or officemates would agree with us. Browse our Domo-kun selection now!

Thought I'd throw down some (way late) pictures. Here's our Thanksgiving turkey which was, incidentally, killed by hand with a sharp knife in keeping with Islamic teachings, according to the outside of the package.

Daughter Rina going horseback riding on her birthday. She loves horses.

I joined the Gainax keitai club so I get to download a bunch of Gainax related stuff for my phone. Here's the Asuka phone animation that has her saying, "Anta baka?!" (Are you stupid?)

This is my most favoritist bento in the world, from a store called Torihei.

Not sure how good it looks to you, but it's thinly sliced pieces of chicken on rice with a delicious sauce over the whole thing. Mmmm... I've been eating it for 15 years and they have never raised the price once.

And this is Yakiori, teriyaku chicken on a stick that's delicious. Why, I wonder, is this not very popular in the U.S.? It seems like a natural to me.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Confusingly noble business practices in Japan, ideas on gift-giving in Japanese society, and how cotton masks made $4 billion for AFLAC

Japan is always ready to surprise you in one way or another, and some of the business practices employed here have caused me some confusion over the years. Once, an electronics retailer we used to frequent closed its doors suddenly, apparently having gone out of business. We were saddened to lose a shop we liked, but we found another retailer that served us just as well. We were surprised when the first store reopened a couple months later with new floors and a new sign -- apparently they had just closed for renovation, but as they didn't bother to make this clear to their customers, they inadvertently ended up losing our business. Also, there are times when salesmen don't act as you'd expect them to. When NTT finally brought fast hikari fiber (fiber optic) Internet to our part of the city, I was so overjoyed I was ready to sign up for the most expensive dedicated line they had. Instead of selling me the costlier service, the NTT salesman talked me out of it, telling me that the standard shared line would be more than fast enough for us -- and he was right. Then there was the time I was shopping for a Minolta camera, the old kind with the silly pre-programmed cards that enabled certain camera effects. I was so filled with camera lust that I was about to add several of the cards to my purchase, but the salesman at the store shook his head, telling me that they weren't worth the money, losing an additional sale but certainly gaining my trust. I'm not totally sure that similar salesmen in the U.S. would have worked to keep me from making an unnecessary purchase like that.

When founder of the AFLAC insurance company John Amos went to Japan for the Osaka Expo in 1970, something unique caught his eye: the Japanese custom of wearing a white cotton mask when they've got a cold, which keeps germs from spreading to others. From this he smartly deduced that the Japanese are very health-centric and might be open to buying his company's insurance products, and he decided to open up a branch in Tokyo. This turned out to be one of the wisest business decisions in history, as AFLAC now insures one in four Japanese households and nets $4 billion in sales annually here. Yes, the Japanese are quite focused on health issues, and it's common to see television shows interviewing 104 year old women from Okinawa on how they lived so long, and introducing strange foods you've never heard of that are guaranteed to change your blood from doro doro (doh-roh doh-roh, syrupy, thick) to sala sala (smooth- flowing and healthy). There are hundreds of products in the marketplace that promise to protect you from bacteria, too, from special soap you leave in your kitchen sponge to sterilize it overnight to my daughter's bicycle, which was marketed as being "germ resistant," whatever that means.

Although Christmas is a relatively recent import into Japan, the giving and receiving of gifts has always been a big part of life in Japan. Besides many formal and informal traditions of exchanging gifts, such as the "engagement presents" traded between the families of a couple about to get married, there are two big gift-giving periods in Japan, when families will give special pre-packaged gift sets such as canned coffee, laundry detergent, soy sauce, salad oil and sake to people who have helped them in some way recently. Companies also trade these gifts, and this year J-List will exchange "oseibo" presents with companies like Crowd (maker of the X-Change and Yin Yang! series), CD-Bros. (publisher of some of the cool new games we'll be bringing out next year) and our many toy, DVD and other distributors. While it makes sense to give something that everyone in the receiving company will be able to use like canned juice, it's also fun to receive something unique from another part of Japan, such as the interesting Hokkaido fruits and seafood that Crowd often sends us, or the delicious Curry Udon from Nagoya we sometimes get.

One of our favorite product genres are bishoujo games, the "pretty girl games" for PCs which let you interact with Japan in a whole new way. We've got the world's largest selection of dating-sim games, with titles for all tastes, whether you're interested in cat girls, maids, or extremely dramatic stories that may even make you cry, with many titles available as downloads, too. We're happy to announce that the new title Bible Black: The Game is now in stock and ready for your immediate order. A great title that explores the satanic side of the genre, it features outstanding art and characters and story that lets you choose either the light or dark side of the story.

We've got loads of great products for your holiday list, with hundreds of recently added or restocked products that anyone on your list would love to receive. We're sure that more than a few of them would love to get some cool Domo-kun products this year, and to help you out we're announcing our first-ever Domo-kun Free Shipping Sale. Here's how it works: order 3 or more Domo-kun items from our extensive seection and we'll give you free shipping on those items, even the rare big-ticket Domo-kun plush toys we've got limited stock of. Please note that in almost every case, the cool Domo-kun products we have are the last that will ever be available from Japan, so if you've been biding your time to round our your Domo-kun collection, now is the time to act, as long-time J-List readers know that a sale like this is a really rare event that won't come along again.