Friday, January 12, 2007

All about our bath in Japan, the concept of Japanese-style "trust," and what's up with Vermont Curry?

Bathing is very important in Japan, and almost all Japanese take time to enjoy a slow bath at the end of the day, which provides time to reflect on recent events or enjoy some "skinship" with the kids, two things that can be lacking in modern society. When we built our Japanese house, we chose a "unit bath" with a nifty computer that fills up the tub with the push of a button. You can set the bath to fill up at a certain time or change the temperature of the bath, or push the "extra full" button when you're especially tired and want a really good soak. Unfortunately our bath computer broke recently (it kept turning on spontaneously and running all night in parody of The Sorcerers Apprentice), so we had to get a new one installed. After the work was done, I asked my wife how much it cost. "I don't know, I didn't ask about money. I left it up to the man K-san sent, and knew it would be okay."

This brings us to one of the concepts I really like about Japan, shinyo (SHEEN'yoh, meaning "trust"), a wonderful idea that's used on a daily basis here. For ten years we've always used the same contractor, K-san, whenever we wanted to get some work done on our house, like when we "reformed" (renovated) my wife's parents' liquor shop or redid the kids' rooms. We like him because he does good work, and he makes sure his work is always good because he's got our trust. The electricians and carpenters and others who work with him are part of his "trust network" and they make sure they don't ever do wrong by us because it would amount to "smearing mud on the face" of K-san. The trust extends to money, too -- we can be sure that what we're charged probably won't be outside what is reasonable, even when my wife forgets to ask what it will cost beforehand.

Japanese curry rice

"You've been in Japan too long when you no longer find anything amusing about the concept of 'Vermont Curry.'" Although you may think of certain foods like sushi, sashimi, tempura and sukiyaki as popular Japanese dishes, the honorary national food of Japan has got to be curry, or as the Japanese call it, curry rice. Curry spread from India during the 1700s and from there went all around the world, a gift from the British Empire, enjoyed in Japan now more than any other kind of food save rice itself. Japanese curry is thick and delicious, and many companies compete to make the best curry for the marketplace, with products like House The Curry (the Japanese love to add the word "the" to product names), Java Curry, and Vermont Curry, flavored with the mild kiss of Vermont apples, or something like that. One of the rules of curry-eating is, curry takes even better after it's been left to sit out all night, and "second day curry" is heavenly (although my son discovered that "second day Chef Boyardee ravioli" is pretty good, too). Curry is available in many forms in Japan, poured over a fried pork cutlet; as udon noodles in a curry soup, a popular dish from Nagoya; or as curry bread, a doughnut-like ball of bread with curry inside. Unlike countries like India, Thailand and Korea, the Japanese are wimps when it comes to spicy food, and when we order curry in a restaurant I have to ask them to make it spicier.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The art of faux pas in Japan, Internet-influenced advertising trends, and 100 "geniuses" the Japanese respect

I'll never forget the moment. In my first year of SDSU, my family got a Japanese homestay student who stayed at our house for a month. It was a great way to share a little bit of the USA with someone from Japan and vice-versa, and I heartily recommend taking homestay students to everyone who has the opportunity. We were eating some rice that our student had prepared, and I needed someplace to put the chopsticks I was fumbling with, so I did what seemed natural to me and jammed them into my bowl of rice, straight up. Our homestay student looked shocked and told me, "Only dead people do that." This was my initiation into the many-faceted world of Japanese faux pas, the complex list of things you're not supposed to do. Many of these customs, such as not sticking chopsticks in rice, not handing food to another person chopstick-to-chopstick, and not sleeping with your head pointing towards north, are related to Buddhist funerals. Some other famous social goofs that foreigners are known for include include walking into homes without taking shoes off, confusing words like ippai and oppai (meaning "a lot" and "boobs," respectively) when speaking to prospective in-laws, and throwing up on the Prime Minister of Japan.

The Japanese are a very orderly people, and they like to organize their world into tidy little lists they call "rankings" (rankingu). The other day I caught an interesting show on TV entitled "100 People the Japanese Like - Genius Version," which introduced the top 100 visionaries, innovators and thinkers in history, as chosen by an online poll. In addition to international figures who are very dear to the Japanese, the forefathers of the Meiji Restoration and a few Emperors from ancient China, many on the list of the most respected geniuses were soldiers who fought during Japan's "Country at War" period. Here are some of the more interesting entries:

33. Walt Disney (founder of Tokyo Disneyland -- just kidding)
31. Soseki Natsume (the most famous Japanese writer of the 19th century)
24. Akira Kurosawa (renowned filmmaker)
18. William Shakespere (famous for tormenting Japanese students of English)
14. Charlie Chaplain (he made several visits to Japan and is very popular here)
13. Ryoma Sakamoto (freedom fighter against the Shogunate, also famous for popularizing Western boots in Japan)
11. Tezuka Osamu (creator of Astro Boy and of anime and manga as we know it)
10. The Wright Brothers (first aviators)
9. Amadeus Mozart (decomposing composer)
8. Nobunaga Oda (the first of three successful unifiers of modern Japan)
5. Hideo Noguchi (researcher who helped isolate yellow fever, later died of yellow fever)
4. Shokatsu Komei (legendary figure from China's history, famous for making Chinese manju bread with meat inside, now sold at 7-11)
3. Thomas Edison (inventor and shrewd businessman, created the electric chair to make his competition look bad)
2. Leonardo da Vinci (Michelangelo wasn't too happy about this)
1. Albert Einstein (who also loved Japan during his several month visit -- he even had a favorite bento restaurant in Nihonbashi, Tokyo)

Here's a short from the show, the piece on Edison.

And if you want to read the whole list in Japanese, go to this page.

As with the rest of the world, the Internet has profoundly changed Japan, allowing people to communicate in many new ways. Adoption of fast broadband has helped -- even J-List has a speedy hikari fiber (fiber-optic) connection despite being surrounded on all sides by rice fields in our rural city. As the existence of the Net causes changes in society, advertisers change too, and the latest trend in TV commercials is to end a segment with a visual of a keyword being typed into a search engine. At the end of a commercial for a home builder the keyword "reliable homes" is shown being searched for, and Mitsui Mitsubishi Bank claimed the keyword "a roof over your head" using this method. McDonald's scored big with an ad campaign asking "Does Donald ever speak?" (his name is Donald here) and suggesting that viewers search for Donald no uwasa ("the latest gossip about Donald") in web browsers, which led to an interactive TV commercial online. Suggesting that viewers do a Yahoo or Google search on a certain keyword isn't only done in TV commercials, but is showing up in radio and print ads, too. Apparently getting the customer to take an action helps put them in a certain frame of mind for making a purchase, and I'll bet advertisers measure spikes in keyword searches to gauge which advertisements are proving effecting for them. I think we should test this theory, though. Everyone, search for Domo-kun on J-List right now!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Coming of Age Day in Japan, on Japanese puns used in TV commercials, and right wing politics at work in Japan

Today is a holiday in Japan, Seijin-no-hi, or Coming of Age Day. Venture into any Japanese city right now and you'll see hundreds of 20-year-olds decked out in the finest kimonos and sparkling new suits, greeting each other and taking group photos together. In Japan, the official age of adulthood is 20 (as commemorated in our wacky "you must be 20 years old to purchase tobacco and alcohol" T-shirts), and today is a special day to mark their official debut as shakai-jin (lit. "society-people"), or full-fledged members of society. Today, 20-year-olds throughout the country will endure long speeches by elderly community leaders, have lunch with friends, and go drinking in the evenings to enjoy their new freedom. For parents it's a proud day too, and doting fathers are all too happy to plunk down $5000 for a gorgeous kimono that their daughters will in all likelihood wear only once. Like many aspects of Japan, Coming of Age Day has been around for centuries -- in the old days women celebrated turning of age by dying their teeth black for the first time.

Each language has its own unique phonetic features and its own potential for dajare (dah-jah-REH), or bad puns, which are called dada-jare in my family because I'm the Dad and I usually make the bad puns (which is a pun in itself, really). In Japanese there are some silly conventions used in advertising that are unique to the language, which are interesting for a gaijin to observe and catalog. First of all, the word zo (zoh、増) means "more" (as in "50% more free"), but it's also the word for elephant (像)-- hence, it's not uncommon for a TV commercial to make use of elephants to reinforce the image of getting more free buy buying such-and-such brand. Similarly, rakuda (駱駝)is the word for camel, but it also means "[this] is very comfortable and convenient" (楽だ), so every few years some company or another makes a TV commercial featuring camels basking in comfort because of some product. Dogs say "woof!" in English, but to the Japanese the sound is "wan!" and some companies create cute dog characters showing that they're "number wan" in their respective industries. Finally, the word mou (moh) means "already" but it's also the local version of "moo" -- and so, it's common for commercial messages to be communicated using cows saying things like, "Stop wasting your money on brand X, already!" Those Japanese can be so goofy.

We interrupt this J-List update to bring you the latest news in right-wing politics, Japan style. One of the downsides to living next door to the mayor of a Japanese city is, every once in a while ultra-conservatives will park their loudspeaker cars in front of our house and blast the neighborhood with anti-mayor threats and slogans, which is what they're doing right now. Japan's right-wingers are not unlike the KKK in the U.S., making use of freedom of speech laws to get their political point across despite being universally ignored by all reasonable people. This time they're howling about the project to tear down our city's perfectly good Ferris Wheel and erect a new one two kilometers to the north, so it'll be visible from the freeway as people drive by, essentially the municipal equivalent of unnecessary surgery. "Come out and face us, Mayor Yanai!" they're shouting through the loudspeakers. "We were stupid to make a person like you our mayor!" If you've ever seen any of the films of Juzo Itami such as "Minbo, or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion," you know how comical Japanese right-wing yakuza types can be, with their giant trucks and their military uniforms and their incessant banzais to the Emperor while playing the theme song to the old Space Cruiser Yamato anime. Silly as they are, today is the first time I find myself in perfect agreement with them, since I also oppose the needless construction project. How do you say "pork barrel" in Japanese?

J-List loves to bring you a slice of Japan's amazing pop culture with every update. We're especially fond of Japan's tradition of manga comics, and stock hundreds of titles, including the outstanding English-translated manga magazine, Comic AG, one of the best values you'll ever see. In additional to being available in single issues, you can get a revolving subscription so each issue is sent to you automatically. Or order AGSET, sets of 5 comics for a discount, also very popular. Why not browse our manga pages now?

Picture of a 右派 car (right wingers loudspeaker car) I'd shot next to my favorite hair dresser.

The text on the side says "Leave a rich environment to our children and grandchildren." It's backwards by the way -- a stupid rule in Japan is, you right from left to right, except when writing on the right side of a car, in which case you go from the front of the car, back. Whatever.

And here are some pictures from our trip to Karuizawa, Land of Snow right now. Some of you probably think that snow is nothing, but to a San Diegan like me, it's magical even when it makes driving more difficult.

Out the window of our apartment.

Cold baka.

And since today's topic was dajare or bad puns in Japanese, on our way home we went to a restaurant called Auntie Pasta, which was pure gold as far as dajare go.