Friday, January 26, 2007

How the iTunes Japan store reflect Japan's oddities, my mother-in-law and our old sofa, and understanding Japan through Big Macs

Slate.com ran an article yesterday on Apple's Japanese iTunes Music Store and how frustrating it was that fans of J-POP music around the world couldn't use the service unless they had a credit card registered to an address in Japan. The article mentioned that certain "underground shops" were providing the prepaid cards to get around this restriction -- gee, I wonder who they were talking about? Besides causing the near-total "Slashdotting" of the J-List server while thousands of people followed links to buy the cards from us (which is why the server was sluggish if you were online yesterday, sorry about that), the article made me grin knowingly, really feeling the author's pain. Japan is an island nation in almost every sense of the word: geographically, of course, but also culturally and socially, and mainstream society here seems perfectly happy to live on a slightly different plane of existence from the rest of the human race. When Japanese record companies negotiated with Apple to make the Japan iTMS, making sure that Japanese bands like Gackt or X Japan or the dreamy voice of Okinawan vocalist Rimi Natsukawa were only available to domestic customers probably made a lot of sense to them. Part of the reason for this is the Japanese fear of the unknown, the terror that there might be a downside lurking in some new idea, requiring that any response should be delayed for as long as possible while the situation is thought through. But I'm convinced another big reason for Japan's unwillingness to interface with the rest of the world more is its "English Complex," the quiet embarrassment that many adult Japanese feel over not being able to communicate effectively in English despite six to ten years of study. The whole situation is so silly -- I mean, these sprawling corporations were the ones pushing for a truly global world economy, and now that it's arrived, they want to change their minds? Anyway, if you'd like to become a customer of Apple's Japan iTMS and browse and buy great Japanese music, we've got the prepaid music cards you need. The cards work with the iTunes that's already installed in your Mac or PC, operate in your native language (except for some Japanese bands and song titles which are in Japanese), and best of all, you can listen to your music on any iPod in the world.

One phrase you learn pretty quickly after coming to Japan is mottai nai (mo'-TIE-NIGH), which translates as "what a waste," which is short for, "what a waste to throw this perfectly good sofa away, I think I'll put it in my hallway instead." Back in my ESL days I did a lot of private teaching, visiting peoples' homes to tutor their kids in English, and so I got to see how a lot of Japanese families lived. One of the most common trends I noticed were homes that were filled with clutter, with books and mail-order catalogs and portable electronics and fish tanks covering every inch of the home, and nary a table or shelf left empty. The combination of high population, tiny land mass and economic prosperity seems to have lead to too much stuff floating around most homes. Exacerbating the problem is the tendency of older Japanese, who remember when they were lucky if they had plain white rice to eat once a day, to never throw anything away. This is the case with my mother-in-law, who can't get into her bedroom because our old sofa is in the hallway, blocking the door -- it would have been mottai nai to throw it away, so she kept it.

I talk a lot about how Japan is said to trail behind the West socially, following about a decade or so behind while the U.S. and Europe blaze trails in new directions. Many areas of Japan's society, from laws governing child safety seats in cars to sekuhara (sexual harassment) at work to rules about who can smoke and where, regularly take their cues from the West. In some ways it's a good strategy -- I mean, it makes sense to wait a decade and see how the U.K.'s "big bang" banking reforms play out before implementing a similar program yourself, and there's a Japanese proverb that advises us to "strike a stone bridge three times with your walking stick before crossing" to ensure that it's safe. The newest area of Japan's society to look towards the Occident might just be eating habits, if the recent release of McDonald's "Mega Mac" (a Big Mac with four meat patties instead of two) is any indication. The limited-edition burger sold a whopping 3 million units in just a few days, and some stores had to stop selling them lest they run out of meat for their other hamburgers.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

All about Japan's most enigmatic food natto, how reading your Hemingway can help you under modern otaku culture, and a happy day for a town in Japan

The fermented soybeans known as natto (NAT-toh) are one of the most famous foods in Japan, enjoyed throughout the country, although people from Osaka supposedly dislike it. Eaten by a wide swath of Japanese from children to the elderly and everyone in between, the sticky beans are usually mixed with yellow mustard and eaten over white rice. There are many legends about how natto was first discovered, but the most famous seems to be that in the year 1083 the general Yoshiie Minamoto was on campaign with 100,000 troops near a town called Mito, and stopped at an inn to rest. Some soybeans had been steamed and wrapped in straw for the horses to eat, and these fermented naturally while sitting on the floor of the stable. Some of the soldiers tried the beans and liked the taste, so they offered some to their lord, who loved it, which is where the name natto ("offered beans") comes from. Last week a TV show created an instant rush on natto when it broadcast a report that said that, based on hard data from the U.S., eating natto twice a day would lead to losing 2-3 kg per week. Although natto does have various health benefits such as reducing blood clots and lowering cholesterol, the show's fabrication of actual data was another example of the Japanese media's love of yarase (yah-rah-say), or faking on the air to get good ratings. If you're "natto curious" but don't think you can get past the unique smell, we recommend miso soup instead, which possess most of the health benefits and is generally more palatable to gaijin (and we've got it in stock).

"Aficion means passion. An aficionado is one who is passionate about the bull-fights. All the good bull-fighters stayed at Montoya’s hotel; that is, those with aficion stayed there. The commercial bull-fighters stayed once, perhaps, and then did not come back..."

It's always interesting to study how language and the brain interact to create our perceptions. It seems that every once in a while an idea comes along that's so new and unique that it can't be described with an existing word, and the only solution is to import a more fitting one from another language. No word could illustrate Hemingway's views on bullfighting as well as the term aficionado, one who has aficion for the sport, and his use of the term gives an unforgettable flavor to his fiction. In a similar way, the rise of Japanese pop culture in the 1990s brought with it a slew of new words, like otaku (an aficionado of Japanese pop culture), anime (animation from Japan, as separate from animation from other countries) and doujinshi (fan-created comics that pay tribute to popular TV shows), which capture the spirit of new Japan-focused culture better than any English term could. There are many examples of the reverse occurring, too, situations when Japanese are forced to reach into English to find a word that will describe just the idea they want to express, and it's common to hear nihongo peppered with words like innobeeshon, kurietibiti, taagetto, and appiiaru pointo (that's "innovation" "creativity" "target" and "appeal point" in case it wasn't clear). These concepts could be expressed using Japanese words, but the nuance would be totally different.

The city of Tomioka, Gunma Prefecture, just down the road from J-List, is overjoyed right now: the sprawling Tomioka Silk Mill has been officially designated a World Heritage Site by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. One of the first modern factories of its kind in Japan, the silk-reeling mill was a built using French know-how in 1871 during Japan's march towards modernization, and is a symbol of the country's early industrial days. If you know anything about the Japanese, it's that they like to be recognized internationally, and getting the official nod from UNESCO brought great happiness to the people of the city. The television news was filled with images of people dancing in the streets and shooting off fireworks in the middle of the day over their new official status.

Remember that J-List carries a very warm, fuzzy thing from Japan: Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service blankets that are great for curling up with on the sofa. Japan's acrylic blankets are incredibly soft to the touch and will provide your family with years of great service (we use them at my house too). However, our stock of these blankets is very limited and when they're gone they'll be gone for good. Check our J-List's lineup of anime blankets from Japan now.

Monday, January 22, 2007

About police and "police boxes" in Japan, learning to mispronounce your own language, and various meanings of "genki"

The subject of Japan's police is an interesting one. Japan's boys in blue are organized under the umbrella of the National Police Force, one of the first areas of society to be modernized in the European model when the country began its transformation from a feudal backwater into an industrialized nation in the 1870s. As with the Ministry of Education, Japan's police are a very top-down organization, and there's very little in the way of variance between police in different parts of the country, from Hokkaido to Okinawa. One big difference between the police in Japan and in the U.S. is the network of koban, the so-called "Police Boxes" or small police stations situated around Japanese cities. If you have a problem or need to ask for directions, there's usually a Koban nearby where you can get help. Police in Japan are komuin (KOH-mu-een), part of the sprawling caste of life-long public employees originally modelled on Britain's Civil Service system, who must pass a challenging regimen of tests in order to achieve that enviable status, just like firemen, teachers and employees at government offices here. Because komuin by definition cannot be fired except in extremely rare situations, it creates somewhat of a gap between society's protectors and Taro Q. Yamada (i.e., the average Japanese person on the street, Joe Sake Bottle if you will).

Koban

When you learn Japanese, or any foreign language for that matter, you need to get used to new and often strange pronunciations of familiar words. In the film "Madagascar," which my kids still try to watch at least twice a day if they can get away with it, Marty the Zebra is trying to find "the wild" which he believes is located in Connecticut. Once, my wife asked the kids, "Why does he want to go to Connecticut?" For phonetic reasons, Connecticut renders quite bizarrely in Japanese, a five-syllable word that sounds like "coh-neh-chi-KAH- tto" (in katakana, it's コネチカット). This pronounciation was so different from the English name that my kids were used to that they burst up laughing, then spent an hour trying to get my wife to pronounce "Connecticut" the proper way (which she couldn't do -- kids can be so cruel). In addition to place names, the Japanese use many English words in daily life, with altered pronunciations to fit their language, and it's always hard for English speakers to learn to "mispronounce" words, like "weekend" (ウィークエンド, which sounds like "oo-EE-koo-EN-doh"), "stew" (スチュー, which comes out like "su-CHOO" according to the rules of Japanese phonology), or good old "McDonald's" (マクドナルド, which is "ma-ku-do-NA-roo-doh").

Ogenki desu ka? This is one of the first phrases a student of Japanese encounters, and it corresponds to the greeting "how are you?" although "are you well?" is a slightly more accurate translation. In the context of this greeting, genki means "fine or "well" and you can reply by saying "Hai, genki desu (Yes, I am fine). But words don't always map cleanly to other languages, and genki can have other meanings, such as describing children running around (energetic), or someone beaming with happiness about something, or someone getting healthy after an illness. An elderly person is called genki if he's still hale for his age, you try to cheer up a depressed person by saying Genki wo dashite (lit. show me some genki), and the word can also describe the state that many men find themselves in when they first get up in the morning. The o on ogenki desu ka is an honorific prefix that shows respect, and it's often found on family titles (okaasan = mother, obaasan = grandmother), Buddhist words (otera = Buddhist temple), and "cute" words often used around kids or babies (oshiri = a cute-sounding word for a person's rear end).

You never know where the next "boom" is going to come from in Japan. It could be sneakers with ridiculously thick soles one year, fashionable clothes sporting the Union Jack the next year, and ridiculous librarian-esque horn-rimmed glasses the next. Right now Japan is in the middle of an "Ichigo Boom" or surge in strawberry-flavored food products, with dozens of delicious strawberry related products showing up in stores. Today we've posted some great new ichigo products for you to sample, from chocolate covered Koeda stick snacks to Strawberry Choco Flake to a bold new Strawberry Crunky, the chocolate with the oddest name in Japan. Check out our line up of strawberry products now!