Friday, December 15, 2006

Looking up when you walk, the Japanese custom of name stamps, and the J-List Year-End Party

I recently talked about how many Japanese professionals from businessmen to musicians to athletes seem to consider succeeding in the U.S. to be the Holy Grail of their respective industry, a kind of cultural Oedipus complex that we non-Japanese can't ever understand. In the case of musicians wanting to make it big in the U.S., many are no doubt hoping to follow in the footsteps of of Kyu Sakamoto, who claimed the coveted #1 spot on the Billboard charts back in 1963. The song was Ue o Mite Ariko, or "I Look Up When I Walk," a cheerful tune about a decidedly un-cheerful topic, a man dealing with heartbreak. It was released in the U.S. as the Sukiyaki song, even though it has nothing to do with my favorite Japanese winter dish, and defied all expectations by turning into a smash hit despite being sung in the original Japanese language. Back in the days when I had free time (i.e. before starting J-List), I'd sometimes take extended bicycle trips around our prefecture of Gunma, camping along the way, and once I headed out for a remote village called Ueno-mura to explore some caverns I'd heard about there. My wife shuddered when she heard where I was going. "I could never go out there, that's where that plane went down in 1985." She was talking about JAL Flight 123, the terrible crash that claimed the lives of 520 people, including the singer Sakamoto. Sukiyaki remains one of the most famous Japanese songs throughout the world -- I once bumped into my old nisei high school teacher singing it in a restaurant -- and it's been covered many times and in many languages. Here are some you can download in MP3 format.

It wouldn't be much fun if your job was to stamp documents all day long, but as usual everything works differently in Japan, and they take the idea of stamping documents very seriously. While signatures are the accepted way of indicating your approval in writing in the West, in Japan and much of Asia you usually use a hanko, or official name stamp that's registered with the city. This custom always strikes gaijin as odd -- after all, what's to stop me from stealing someone's stamp and taking all their money out of the bank? For some reason, you never hear of this happening, partially because for really important transactions you need to go to the local city office and get a document that proves that this stamp is the one that's registered to you, kind of a like a notary public for your stamp. Companies have official stamps, too, and when you order an Apple product your warranty card comes with an eerily cool red stamp that says Apple Computer Inc. on it in katakana and kanji. Japan can be quite a superstitious place, and when my wife made the official J-List hanko stamp she went out of her way to do it on one of the Buddhist "lucky days" (called Taian), paying I don't know how much for a hand carved stamp that would surely bring our company more luck than some "brand X" one.

 It's once again time for one of my favorite events of the year, the J-List Bounen-kai, or Year-End Party, in which the entire staff of J-List will gather for good food and drink and will look back on all that we've accomplished this past year. And what a year it's been! Besides filling more than 80,000 orders and hopefully bringing Japan a little closer to you, J-List turned ten years old, which is really a long time when measured in Internet Years -- we're even two years older than Google. This year we've rented a stylish sushi restaurant that specializes in maguro, which is tuna sushi and sashimi, which will no doubt be followed by a hearty dose of karaoke and maybe some good late-night ramen at a little place I know of. We'll be making many a kampai to you, our wonderful customers. Thanks for your support!
In other news, we're happy to announce that our newest blockbuster dating-sim Yin-Yang - X-Change Alternative is in stock and shipping now! An all-new take on Crowd's popular X-Change concept, made by all-new team including scenario writer Q-Tron and artist Nao Tajima (of Eve Burst Error fame), this newest X-Change focuses on Kaoru, a Japanese boy who possesses a unique form of "yin-yang" DNA that's 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. What bizarre adventures will Kaoru-chan face as he struggles to find a way to return to normal? We're plowing through the many preorders now, and hope you'll pick it up now that it's available!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

How Japan's writing system works, a summary of the past few years in kanji, and Japanese learning to deal with "hen na gaijin"

Kanji (KAHN-gee), the Chinese characters that the Japanese use to express most words in writing, is fascinating to Westerners because they're so unlike the Occidental way of doing things. Kanji may be meaningless to the untrained eye -- I've always liked looking at Van Gogh's copies of famous ukiyo-e paintings, wondering what thoughts went through his mind as he tried to replicate the kanji strokes in his own work -- but of course there's a lot more to kanji that's not immediately apparent. First, the characters are organized into groups based on meaning, with "radicals" (parts of the kanji, usually the left, top or bottom segments) giving a clue about the meaning. For example, words related to speaking, reading and recording of information have a unified part on the left that looks like a stack of books, and words like sea, fish, wave, and steam all share the same left portion which means "water." When you need to look up a character in a kanji dictionary there are three ways to do it: by the pronounciation (not so good as some sounds can be written with dozens of different characters); by the overall number of strokes it takes to write (tedious when trying to find a complex character with 20+ strokes); or by what radical it's written with (the recommended method). Of course this being Japan, there's one and only one correct way to write a given kanji, and children who don't follow the exact stroke order will get points marked off on their tests -- although in reality, no one writes kanji properly once they get out into the real world, and styles differ widely, just like handwriting variations in the West.

One cool thing about kanji is the way it can promote an idea with a picture, create an emotional response with a single image, something we have tried to capture with our line of original Japanese themed T-shirts. Every year the Japan Kanji Foundation, the organization that promotes regular testing of kanji skills to encourage students to study harder, holds a contest to choose one Kanji of the Year, the one character that best sums up the events of the past twelve months. It's quite an interesting way to look back at years past and reflect on what has gone before. Previous Kanji of the Year have included ai (愛, love, 2005) because of the Expo held in Aichi Pref. and the popular drama Train Man, the story of an anime otaku who finds love with a beautiful woman he meets on a train; wazawai (災, disaster, 2004) after the destruction of the quake in Niigata and far worse disaster in the Indian Ocean; ki (帰, homecoming, 2002), to commemorate the five abductees who returned from North Korea; and ikusa (戦, war, 2001), from the terrible events of that year. The Kanji of the Year for 2006 has been chosen, and it is....inochi (命), a word meaning life, in the sense of precious life, a thing to be treasured, in response to both good events (the birth of a new Imperial Heir) and very sad ones (the horrific number of ijime-inspired suicides by young people that has plagued Japan this year).

The Japanese have been dealing with gaijin for 153 years now, but it seems that they'll never get used to our strange ways. We do things like wearing bathroom slippers while standing on a train platform, riding mountain bikes with those funny helmets on, driving our "open cars" with the top down in December, sleeping in the tokonoma, the recessed part of a Japanese room that's used for displaying objects d'art, and buying chrysanthemums, a flower usually reserved for putting on gravestones, as a token of love for our wives. Although some Japanese think there are a lot of foreigners in Japan, I find this quaint, since only around 1.5% of the population of Japan comes from elsewhere, compared with 9% or more in Germany, and that figure includes a large number of Japan-born Koreans who choose not to take Japanese citizenship although they could easily do so. Of course, people aren't evenly distributed over the landscape, and there are communities in which the foreign population has clumped together enough to alter the local culture, such as the nearby town of Oizumi, where around 20% of residents are Brazilians, including many of Japanese descent. As the 21st Century progresses, I think Japan is going to have to take a long, hard look at its homogeneous traditions and learn to embrace alternative ways of doing things.

We're, ahem, a little busy these days, okagesama-de. This is Monday's invoices from Japan only. Hope you're having a nice holiday season so far ^_^

Monday, December 11, 2006

Thoughts on my father and Buddhism, the Mac-PC connection with being bilingual, and our cute American, Japanese daughter

Sunday was my father's meinichi, the anniversary of the day he died nine years ago (although Japanese are always puzzled that we use a happy-sounding word like "anniversary" to describe this). Peter Rowland Payne was an engineer who created many things in his 70 years on Earth, including high-speed boats and hydrofoils, early crash-test dummies, VTOL aircraft, and not least of all, me! (Thanks, Dad.) Although Japan blends many different religious traditions as they see fit, drawing on Shinto for baby naming ceremonies and prayers for happiness on New Year's Day, and Christian themes for that special "white wedding," at the end of the day it's a very Buddhist country. Japanese Buddhism, at least the Nichiren sect that my wife and mother belong to, tends to be focused on one's ancestors, your mother and father and those who came before them, and there are many ceremonies or daily customs that let the dead know they've not been forgotten, from burning a stick of incense at the Buddhist altar in the morning to visiting the family grave on a person's meinichi. Here's to my Dad, much loved and not forgotten!

I bought my son one of those spiffy new iMacs that can run Mac OS X and also function as a full PC for Windows-only applications and games. (Aside, if you're a Star Wars fan and haven't played Battlefront I and II, you don't know what you're missing). While taking our weekend dip in the local onsen bath my son and I were talking about how a bilingual individual's personality can change depending on which language he's using -- my own Japanese-speaking "self" is quite different from my American side, even capable of inadvertently bowing to the other party while speaking on the phone. My 11-year-old son agreed. "When I speak English, I'm one way," he observed, "but when I switch to Japanese, everything changes inside." It was, he concluded, a lot like his iMac booting from Mac to Windows. Intrigued, I had to ask him which language was Mac and which was Windows, and he answered that the Japanese side of his brain was like Windows because there are more rules, virus software you have to run and so on, but the English side is like the Mac because it's more "free." Interesting.

I wonder about my daughter sometimes, though. If my son has a dual-booting OS with Japanese and English sides, my daughter seems to be American all the way. The Japanese Ministry of Education is trying to be more effective at teaching Japanese kids English, so now all Elementary School kids get a few hours a week with a native speaker AET. Despite having 40 of her non-bilingual class- mates surrounding her, my daughter has no problem with conversing naturally with this teacher, a very un-Japanese attitude to have. One important mechanism in society here is enryo (EN-ryoh), which means to avoid doing things that will inconvenience others, and deferring to those who are older than you. But my daughter regularly does the impossible, turning kids who are older than her (and thus, her senpai) into friends, treating them as if they were the same age and thus eliminating the barrier between them. This is a rarity in Japan, a country where you use (slightly) more polite language when talking to someone who is your senior. She makes friends with kids she doesn't know, too, and when she was smaller and took baths with us in the men's onsen, my son and I would watch and see how long it would take her to organize the other kids in the bath and start playing games together. While there are occasional issues of "TPO" (a convenient Japanese word which means "time, place, occasion"), my wife and I totally support my daughter's desire to be an American girl in Japan.

Remember that J-List is loaded to the gills with great 2007 calendars printed for the domestic market, but available to you through us. The calendars feature large, poster-sized pages with gorgeous glossy printing, and they're a great way to bring a bit of Japan into your year. We've posted new stock of some of our most popular calendars, including Yuko Ogura, Bleach, Naruto, Evangelion, Rozen Maiden and this year's smash hit, Domo-kun! Why not browse our calendar selection now and find some great items for you or those on your gift-giving list this year?