Friday, December 22, 2006

What the Japanese think of Americans, our trip to Guam, and ah, the smell of kerosene in the morning

As an expat American living away from my home country, it's sometimes interesting to ask the Japanese people around me what their impressions of us yanks are, to see what stereotypes they might have. "I think they are very 'about,'" Tomo replied right away, using an imported English word (abauto, アバウト) that has come to mean broad, imprecise, and loose on details in Japanese. (Yes, that fits me to a tee.) He added that while some Americans might hold onto the famous image of the Japanese tourist with a camera around their neck, most of the Americans in Tokyo's famous Asakusa region fit pretty much the same description, so it all depends on a person's point of view. Yasu added that the Americans he's met are extremely friendly, ready to make conversation even though they've just met you. "Also, they love ketchup. It seems Americans are always putting ketchup on food." Um, okay. I've been told several times that Americans are optimists, always positive about any subject, and this was an especially important part of the reconstruction of Japan after World War II. This positive attitude is something we are apparently famous for here -- I once happened to draw a happy face on a note I was writing, and a Japanese friend of mine saw it and said, "Oh, that's very American."

Ah, the smell of kerosene in the morning. Now that it's starting to get really cold -- well, cold from the point of view of this pansy San Diegan, anyway -- we've broken out the kerosene heaters around here. Because homes and businesses generally lack central heating, the most common method of warming rooms is through stand-alone kerosene heaters called "stoves" (suto-bu, ストーブ), or electric-kerosene heaters that blow heated air (called "fan heaters," ファンヒーター) and have electronics to control the temperature and shut off after 3 hours (so you can ventilate the room). Kerosene heaters are economical, but they are not without their drawbacks. The smell they make when they start up is bad, but try kicking one accidentally as you walk by it -- the safety switch will trigger, shutting off the unit but filling the room with an acrid kerosene stench that's like being in a paint factory. They seem to leech oxygen from the air, too, making my wife fall asleep on the sofa more often while we're watching TV together in the winter. There's a special branch of Murphy's Law that deals with when the kerosene heaters will run out of fuel, requiring a trip out in the freezing cold to manually refill the tank. The usual place to keep your tanks of kerosene is the genkan, the recessed area of Japanese homes where shoes are removed. Naturally, it's all to easy to forget to notice that the tank is full and spill kerosene all over the place, soaking the entire family's shoes and landing me in the doghouse with everyone. Ah, the tribulations of brave gaijin who dare to live in Japan.

My family and I are off for a little vacation to the island of Guam, Where America's Day Begins (tm). We had so much fun when we took the J-List staff there two years ago that we wanted to go back. Guam is sort of a miniature version of Hawaii, with many of the same beautiful beaches and beautiful activities, on a much smaller scale of course (the population is just 170,000, less than our city in Japan). It's just a short three-hour flight from Japan, and since we cross only one time zone, we won't spend half our vacation fighting off jet lag. We plan to spend Christmas riding banana boats and jet skis, and getting in some good sea kayaking, too. We know it'll be crowded with Japanese and Korean and Chinese tourists all around us, but we'll have fun. All of us at J-List thank you for your support this past year, and wish you all a Merry Christmas, wherever you are in the world! (Since I've never known anyone from the mainland U.S. to know much about the place, here's some reading.)

Remember, we've got the perfect answer to your worries about what to give that special someone on your Holiday list, with our handy J-List Gift-Certificates, which can be sent by email for speedy delivery, and which come with a cool PDF gift certificate which can be printed out by your recipient (or you). You'll be able to rest in the knowledge that your recipient got exactly what they wanted, since J-List has so many cool products from Japan. J-List Gift Certificates never expire, and can be used on both the J-List and websites.

Remember that J-List carries some cool things you just can't find without hopping on a plane and coming on a plane to Japan. From excellent souvenirs that you could only find in Kyoto gift shops to the legendary high school uniforms (for both girls and guys) from Matsukameya of Nagoya, which J-List distributes exclusively (they don't speak that much English and were happy to have us handle all their outside-Japan orders). Another cool item we sell are the actual school bags used by high school students in Japan, a totally unique way to carry your stuff to school, or wherever.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Thoughts on raising bilingual kids, comparing of names between Japan and the West, and what Carl Sagan has taught me

It's hard raising bilingual children in a country where English isn't used on a daily basis, except on signs that say "SPLUSH is not only the problem of age" and T-shirts with bizarre slogans like "Let's enjoy with me." I've been using the Brain Quest flashcards with my kids quite a lot these days, since it's a fun way to motivate them and provide plenty of input with English -- also, the cards are coated with plastic which keeps them from getting too wet in the bath, our preferred place of study. My kids are good at figuring the answers to most of the questions, with the exception of cultural ones that only someone who grew up in the States would answer, like who cut down the cherry tree. Last weekend a question came up asking how many digits were in the number 76,315. When my son answered "six," I immediately knew why: because the Sino-Japanese numbering system is based on 10,000 (ichi mahn, written 一万) rather than 1,000, his brain has misheard 760,315. Translating numbers between the two languages is always a pain -- for example, the above number becomes 7 mahn, six thousand, three hundred and fifteen. This is why gaijin will often speak English but revert to Japanese for numbers; it's just too mendo kusai (a pain in the butt) to stop what you're doing and make the conversion.

When Japanese couples choose a name for a new baby, they often consult a Buddhist priest who will advise them on what characters are lucky for that year. The number of strokes used to write the name are important, too, and my wife took great pains to ensure that our daughter's Japanese name would have the same number of lines as hers, for some reason that's unfathomable to me. Names can be written in hiragana, foregoing kanji altogether for aesthetic reasons, but most parents choose kanji characters for the names of their children, being sure to choose from the official list of approved name kanji the government publishes. One big difference between the West and in Japan are the lack of Biblically-derived names here -- every country in Europe has a local version of "Peter" (Pedro, Pierre, Pietro), but not here. Because Western names are rare in Japan, they can easily become larger than any one person. You might know several people named Jason, but in Japan, there's only one: the famous killer from the Friday the 13th movies. Similarly, if Chuck E. Cheese wanted to open a restaurant in Japan, they'd have to find a new name due to the cult status of the old Child's Play movies and Chuckee. There are many Michaels in the world, but in Japan Michael Jackson is the name that springs to everyone's mind right away, and if you name is Clara, Japanese of a certain generation will probably identify you with the girl in the wheelchair from the famous anime Heidi, Girl of the Alps (the scene where Clara gets out of her wheelchair and walks brings tears to my wife's eyes 100% of the time).

I saw on BoingBoing that today is the meinichi -- the anniversary of a person's death that I talked about recently -- of Carl Sagan, who died in 1996. Considering that I happened to be watching some old episodes of Cosmos at that exact moment, MacBook Pro balanced on my lap, seeing the announcement was quite a surprise. I reflected that Mr. Sagan is probably more responsible than anyone else for my sense of wonder, of love of space and ability to say sugoi (soo-GOH-ee, "that's amazing") when I see something truly wonderful in the world. As a father I've tried to pass this quality on to my kids, and I think I've done a good job so far. It was a bit more difficult to try to bring that energetic spirit into the ESL classroom back when I was a teacher, with 18-year-old students who seemed bent on wasting the best years of their life doing baito (part-time job, from the German word arbeit) rather than actually getting out and, you know, living. Of course, Japanese expect foreigners to be overly expansive, emotional, and be full of pie-in-the-sky ideals, and they're usually not disappointed. Still, I hope I passed my love of life on to a few of them, at least.

As you know, J-List has tons of cool products from Japan for you this Holiday Season. The J-List staff on both sides of the Pacific has been working incredibly hard to make sure orders are shipped out in a timely manner, and they've really been working miracles on a daily basis. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond our control (including a slipped disc in one employee, ouch), we're seeing some delays for orders going out from San Diego, for which we apologize. We thank you for your understanding as we cut through the backlog of orders and get back to our normal speedy service.

We're loaded with 2007 calendars from Japan, of course, with 140+ excellent calendars to choose from, all printed exclusively for the Japanese domestic market but available through us. This year's hits so far have included the always-popular Studio Ghibli calendar with its all-original art; the incredibly popular Negima; the 10th Anniversary of Evangelion calendar; cute Japanese stars like Yuko Ogura, Jun Natsukawa and our famous 'onsen' calendars; the eternal Domo-kun, whose calendar will be sold out soon; and cool JPOP calendars like Gackt, Ayumi Hamasaki and Kumi Koda. Remember, Japan is a very seasonal place, and the time to get cool calendars is now, not later.

Remember that J-List stocks thousands of wonderful items from Japan, including bento boxes, cute electronic toys, tools to help you study Japanese, cool ways to bring a touch of Japan to your personal space, and much more. There are many great ways to browse our extensive selection of products, including with the "3 day" link on the front page that shows you items added or updated in the last 3 days; the alternate "view all" link, which shows all J-List products in newest-to-oldest order, and for slower connections, our handy "tree display." Remember that we've recently added a Wish List feature, making it easy for you to add items to the list that you can either use as a reminder of items you want to check out later, or else you can make it a public list and share it with others.

Monday, December 18, 2006

On the magical blending of features in "haafu," a Japan cell phone update, and some Japanese words I am passionate about

Somewhere between the staid features of futsu (normal) Japanese and the dizzying varieties of face, hair and body types seen in Westerners lie what many Nihonjin consider to be the perfect blending of the two, and I've always enjoyed analyzing the special status given to haafu (ハーフ) in the normally homogenous, in-group-or-out-group Japanese society. There's a sizeable segment of half-Japanese, half-Western singers, actors and other popular "talents," from actress/model Becky to TV commercial idol Emily Nakayama to half-Japanese, half-German American heartthrob Eiji Wentz, who make use of their "otherness" to create a strong niche with fans. Anime characters are sometimes created with mixed ancestry to add new dimensions to them as well, with the best example being the fiery Asuka Soryu Langley from Evangelion. You find this tendency to blend Japan and the West in other places too. Takara's Licca-chan is Japan's #1 fashion doll, sold since 1967, and this doll that's been idolized by so many Japanese girls over the years turns out to be half-Japanese and half-French. The ideal of haafu, it seems, blends all the mystique found in the West with all that's good and familiar in Japan, and thus serves as a bridge between the two. When my daughter was small, we got her ears pierced in the U.S., a custom that doesn't exist in Japan, where girls must wait til they graduate from high school before they're allowed to take such a "grown up" step. Once I was shopping with my daughter here and we were suddenly encircled by high school girls who were admiring my daughter and her pierced ears, clearly envious of this special child who was born with the best of both worlds, which presumably included American facial features, the ability to speak English and no need to follow all the meaningless rules they faced every day.

Like most of the world, the Japanese have embraced cell phones in a big way, and virtually everyone in Japan carries a "keitai," including a large portion of elementary school kids and the elderly. Recently my phone was acting up, so I took it to the "au by KDDI" shop to get it looked at, and while I was there I glanced over the new models. Since my family had bought new phones just three months before, I didn't expect to see that much that was new, but I was shocked to find that every handset the company made had been refreshed. The new offerings included a music phone that you could dock with an external subwoofer, a "dual style" phone that could be opened horizontally or vertically, and a phone made specifically for video chatting. Since the Japanese are very design oriented, many phones existed almost entirely for aesthetic reasons, like the "beauty x beauty" series with an exterior surface that lights up with snowflake patterns when a call comes in, or Toshiba's "Drape" concept, built around the keyword of "Emotional Electronics." The recently launched Wanseg system that allows you to watch TV on mobile devices was found in several phones, too. I had fun checking out what names they'd given the colors, like "stillness silver" or "moonlit black." As usual, there was nary a Smartphone in sight, despite many gaijin like me who would kill to have even a first-gen Treo they could use here, but since the phone system Japan uses is incompatible with the rest of the world, and since syllable- based Japanese can be quickly entered with a normal phone keypad, there's not much demand for phones with (admitedly ugly) QWERTY keyboards.

Japanese keitai

As you can imagine, learning a foreign language requires a sustained effort over several years. It also requires plenty of passion, and I've always observed that those who were able to jump into language study with both feet and really make it a part of themselves have the most success with their studies. It's quite natural for students of Japanese to develop a short list of "favorite" words which he or she likes for various reasons, perhaps because of the way the kanji is written or what the word means, or how it sounds to them. So I'll tell you some Japanese words I've become fond of over the years. First up is a word that's important to everyone at J-List, gambaru (gahm-BAH-roo、頑張る), which means to try one's best, to work hard, to give it your all, and is usually used as a request (gambatte kudasai、頑張ってください) or in a command form (gambare!, pronounced gahm-BAH-reh、頑張れ!). Two words I liked so much we recently made J-List T-shirts out of them are ganko (GAHN-koh, 頑固、meaning stubborn, obstinate, unchanging) and ore-ryu (oh-REY-ryoo, 俺流、lit. "my style," roughly translatable as "I'm doing things my damn way, so if you don't like it, too bad"). Some words sound so goofy they're fun to use, like dekopoko (deh-koh poh-koh、凹凸, and aren't those kanji funky?), which just means "bumpy" like the surface of an uneven road, or one of the first words I learned back at SDSU, tokidoki (toh-key-doh-key、時々), which means sometimes and had everyone in the class giggling over its resemblance to "okey dokey." As a fan of the Mazda Miata (I've got one in the U.S. and one in Japan), I like their slogan jinba ittai (jeen-BA ee-TIE、人馬一体) literally meaning "man and horse as one," which pretty much sums up what a Miata is like to drive. Finally, when I was going through a bad time in my life and feeling negative about everything, a Japanese friend taught me a word I've used to great benefit over the years. The word is mae-muki (ma-EH MU-kee, 前向き), literally meaning facing forward, and it carries a strong implication that everything will be better if you'll face forward, look straight ahead at the future and be positive, not negative, as you move through your life.

Christmas is upon us, and the hardworking J-List crew on both sides of the Pacific are hard at work getting products out the door at a furious pace. If you find you've forgotten to get gifts for anyone on your list, we've got a great suggestion: the J-List Gift Certificate, which can be sent to your recipient (or you) via email, and which includes a spiffy custom created PDF gift certificate which can be printed out by your recipient (or you). Giving the gift of Japan-style "gross national cool" in the form of a J-List Gift Certificate is a great way to share J-List's wacky brand of Japanese culture and give something you know will be appreciated. J-List Gift Certificates never expire, and can be used on both the J-List and websites.

This was the one we got for my mother-in-law, with big buttons for dialing pre-set numbers. Hopefully she'll start carrying it with her.

This series was very nice. Each different color had a unique pattern of illumination.

This is the one I'd have gotten it I were shopping right now. Course, only one of the phones will have Bluetooth, which I need for my mobile computing, so it's kind of pointless.

I like the "numbers embedded in a floating mirror surface" look on these.

This is the phone that opens both ways. Kind of useless but very cool.

Hairdresser located right outside the phone shop.