Friday, March 23, 2007

What we can learn about culture and Star Wars from Japanese comedians, some reverse sexual discrimination, and all about "What is your Hobby?"

"What is your hobby?" This is one of the first phrases of English conversation that Japanese students learn, along with "What is your name?" "Where are you from?" and "What is your blood type?" My students at the time were aged 18-20, that period when you're sure you've had all of life's major experiences and don't need to form any new opinions, and some regular responses included Mayumi's stated love of doraibu (going driving with friends), Misako's constant talk about baito (working a part-time job, from the German word arbeit), or good old Kiyoko, who always replied "going shopping with my mother." Because I'm an emotional, idealistic American, I always did my best to get the students to give more information to the class about what really excited them, to get them to do more with their precious youth than they were doing. But except for a few students who had a particular passion for something they could share with the class -- the Beatles, American pro wrestlers, traveling around Japan taking pictures of trains -- getting my Japanese students to be excited about anything was always a challenge.

Speaking of hobbies, one of mine is comparing the cultures of Japan and the U.S., in case you haven't guessed, and sometimes you don't need to look any farther than the people who make us laugh, comedians. While most famous comedians in the U.S. come from the stand-up circuit or through the hallowed gates of Saturday Night Live, comedy in Japan is a little different. One form of traditional Japanese comedy that's been around for centuries is rakugo, literally "fallen words," which involves a lone comedian sitting Japanese- style on a zabuton cushion located very near the audience. The interesting thing about this style of performance is that, rather than using new comedy material, the monologue that the comedian tells is one of an already established library of a hundred or so such humorous stories, although a good rakugo-ka will add his own unique touches. There's a TV show where rakugo comedians do battle to see who is the funniest, and when they get a laugh they get another cushion, so that by the end the winner is sitting on a tower of them. (And in fact, a way of saying "that was funny" is Zabuton, ichi mai, or "I'll give you one zabuton cushion for that.") Another pillar of Japan's comedy world is manzai, humor involving a two-man team that includes a dim-witted boke (boh-KAY, meaning fool) and his sharp-tongued tsukkomi (tsu-KOH-mi, meaning straight foil) sidekick, who act out complex comic sketches together. Manzai has been popular throughout the 20th century and has had a great influence on many areas -- for example, the characters of C-3P0 and R2-D2 indirectly owe their existence to this humorous tradition, via the films of Kurosawa. The most popular manzai team in Japan today is Bakusho Mondai, who are regular guests on news programs where they bring their witty commentary to bear on the events of the past week. If you've happened to see the Japanese version of Apple's "Get a Mac" ads, the duo playing the Mac and PC are two halves of a manzai comedy pair. (We have an English book of rakugo monologues on the site today if you're interested.)

Normally when you think of a subject like sexual discrimination you think of women not being offered the chance to do what they want on an equal footing with males, but I had a little lesson in reverse discrimination last night. My wife, mother-in-law and our two kids were heading to Malaysia for a week to visit a family friend, leaving me home alone -- the Holy Grail for any married man, since I can walk around the house in my underwear, put my feet on the table, and drink out of the milk carton with impunity. Before she could leave, though, my wife was compelled to prepare a week's worth of meals for me, as if my male-ness made me totally unable to fend for myself in for seven days, like some comedy version of a husband from the 1950s. And that, I realized, is one aspect of the relationships between men and women in Japan, a kind of yin-yang (to bring a sufficiently Asian image to my theory) in which the man is responsible being the "great black pillar" (daikoku-bashira) that holds up the household, while the woman does her part to ensure the happiness of the family from the inside. Sounds overly simplified to put it like that, I know, but from within the context of living in Japan, it really works well.

Today we've not one, not two but three wacky new Japanese T-shirts for you on the site. The Japanese are an incredibly expressive people, and they can take something as bland as ASCII letters or generic hiragana and katakana characters and turn them into incredibly expressive images. We've got three new limited-run T-shirts featuring popular emoji ("emotional characters") that capture the heart and soul of the Japanese BBS 2ch and look really cool at the same time. See them on the site now!

J-List carries region-free DVD players that make it child's play to enjoy region-encoded DVDs from Japan, Europe and other countries. Our players are specially manufactured to ignore the pesky region codes that try to keep you from watching the discs you want to enjoy, and are fully compatible with DVDs from all regions, including PAL and RCE discs. Even better, they're loaded with features, like the ability to play DIVX/AVI files burned onto DVD-R media. We've lowered the price on our popular RJ-200 progressive scan/surround sound DVD player, making it even easier to snap up one of these half-height demons and watch any DVD you like.

I see I forgot to post pictures of the hidden micro brewery in the mountains of Gunma. Well, here you go. Here are the taps.

Good roaring Dwarven fires, too.

In general, any time I get the chance to eat wood-fired pizza, I take it.

Like all Japanese breweries, there were three types, very blonde, medium and very fruity, and very dark/stout. I found the middle path to be the most delicious.

This is what the Japanese call a "Margherita" Pizza.

I just love the construction of this place, all wood, with huge pillars of wood visible inside. It was so unexpected to find such a good place in a town with a winter population of a few hundred.

I brought some of these back for my father in law, although I know he won't like them. I'll just have to help him drink them ^_^