Friday, February 02, 2007

Understanding world culture through Japanese hip hop music, thinking about thinking in a foreign language, and out with devils!

It's funny how culture criss-crosses the globe, never stopping at such laughable things as national borders as it flows to any place it can find a home in peoples' minds. You wouldn't think that a country as far removed from the West both physically and culturally as Japan is would have its own burgeoning hip hop and reggae music sub-culture, or that what's playing in clubs in Jamaica is being closely followed from Japan, but the world is an amazing place. Just as Americans and Europeans are interested in the unique ideas and general "otherness" found in anime, manga, JPOP and other forms of contemporary Japanese culture, people here are open to taking in music from outside Japan and remixing it into something unique that's all their own. A quick glance into any fashion magazine shows that Japanese are keen to embrace hip fashion from the West, too, to the point where it might be difficult to identify where one influence ends and another begins. Sometimes the Japanese embracing of American fashions can get a little ridiculous -- some years ago, the red and blue bandanas worn by the Crips and Bloods became all the rage in Tokyo's Ikebukuro district. That's taking things just a little too far...

Japanese Hip Hop

One of the more interesting occurrences when learning a foreign language is becoming able to "think" in that language, when ideas or answers to questions come out directly as opposed to first being converted from English, a process that takes time and makes participating in quick-flowing conversations impossible. The brain is very much like a computer, but one that's capable of re-wiring itself as needed. Learning a language can cause some pretty interesting changes to take place on the old wet-ware, and there are times when you can almost feel that process at work. Another landmark is when you dream in your second language for the first time. I remember my first dream in Japanese very well: it was during finals week at SDSU and I was stressing out over informal verbs (Japanese has lots of verb forms, formal, informal, passive, suggestive, and so on). In my dream I was in a tall building, running up some stairs. I kept meeting Japanese people along the way, and I conversed with them in rapid nihongo despite the fact that I'd taken less than a year of Japanese at the time. I had no idea what I was saying, of course, but in the dream-world I was nevertheless able to communicate freely about any subject I cared to talk about. It was pretty cool, but of course it had to end when it was time to wake up.

Saturday is Setsubun, a fun day for anyone with kids in Japan. Originally falling on New Year's Eve of the old Lunar Calendar that Japan used until 1868, it's a day when oni (devils) will be symbolically chased out of the house so that happiness can reign during the New Year. The father of the house will assume the role of a devil, wearing a paper mask that makes him look scary. When the devil attacks, the children pelt him with baked soybeans and chase him off, shouting Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi! ("Out with devils, in with happiness!"). When the devils are sufficiently vanquished, everyone is supposed to eat their age in soybeans to help guarantee good health in the coming year. This is easy for a child of eight or so to do, but quite a bit harder for parents getting up there in years, since 38 soybeans is quite a lot to crunch down. Another tradition of Setsubun is to eat maki-zushi, or roll sushi, so that the long roll of sushi can point the way to happiness for that year, or something like that.

2007 Japanese Calendar Season was a big success for J-List, and we sold more great anime, JPOP, cute idol, traditional photography and other calendars than ever before. We've gone through and removed some pending orders that hadn't been paid for, which means that several previously "sold out" 2007 calendars are -- incredibly -- available once again. This is really, really your last chance to pick up that cool JPOP, anime, cute idol or other calendar, so browse our selection now!

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Thoghts on learning Japanese back in 1987, the many nuances of Japanese name suffixes, and being romantic under an umbrella

I sometimes find myself thinking back to my college days when I first started learning Japanese, and it never fails to make me feel natsukashii (nahts-ka-SHEE), meaning nostalgic. It was 1987 and the Soviet Union was still very much alive, yet year by year people seemed to be growing more aware of Japan instead, as the nation grew in stature in the world. During the first week of classes there were twice as many students wanting to take Japanese 101 than could fit in the room, but the teacher had a great solution to that problem: everyone who wanted to stay in the class had to learn the hiragana writing system within a week, which really got the number of students down to a manageable level in a hurry. In class, the teacher required us to call each other by our last names with the Japanese name suffix -san, e.g. Payne-san, Smith-san, and so on. The system of Japanese name endings is quite complex and interesting, and if you're curious, I'll tell you more.

First, there's -san ("sahn" with a long vowel), the "basic" name suffix, used in polite situations with neighbors or car salesmen or business partners or coworkers, just about anybody. It can be used to refer to organizations as well, and when we order products from distributors in Tokyo they address us collectively as "J-List-san." The next two most common name endings are -chan and -kun, used for girls and boys respectively, for example Hanako-chan or Taro-kun. Although these terms seem straightforward, there's a lot going on under the surface that can be hard for a foreigner to grasp, since both name endings imply a certain closeness to the person being referred to, and confusion can ensue if you use them wrong. For example, if you called a girl you don't know very well by her name with -chan on the end, she might think you're being cheeky by acting like you're closer to her than you are, and calling a male you're good friends with using -san instead of -kun might make him think you don't really consider him a friend after all. The -chan ending is okay for girls who are below the age of 15 or so, but in office settings it can be considered sekuhara (sexual harassment) to add the ending to a female's name. Another name ending is senpai, which describes someone who is your senior in a school or company, although the corresponding term kouhai (junior, underclassman) is not used as a name ending. If you watch too much anime like I did, you probably know the name ending -sama, used for addressing high-ranking persons, samurai lords and so on, although in practice this word is almost never used in Japanese outside of certain phrases or when sending formal wedding invitations. There's an endless number of these name endings -- some others you might come across here include senshu (used for professional athletes), yogisha (suspect, added to the names of people who are officially under a police investigation), sensei (used with doctors, teachers and karate instructors), and one of the stranger ones, anaunsaa (announcer), the official name ending when referring to a TV newscaster.

When you're learning about Japan through anime or manga, it's always fun to pick up some of the small, unimportant details along the way. One of these I like is called Ai-ai-gasa, which literally means "walking together under an umbrella" but it sounds phonetically like it means "Love Love Umbrella." Supposedly, the idea of a boy and girl walking in the rain under the same umbrella is quite romantic to the Japanese (although I've always been more of a sitting-in-the-car-in-the-rain type of person, myself), and this concept is expressed by a cute little doodle that's drawn by elementary school students, the Japanese equivalent of a boy and a girl carving their initials in a tree surrounded by a heart or the old "...sittin' in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G" song. In this modern age that we live in, most cell phone are able to take pictures and overlay any image you like, and one of the options you can select is a cute Ai-ai-gasa umbrella so you can feel a special bond to the person you're posing with.

Are you looking for a Japanese Girlfriend? Then we've got just the T-shirt for you. Our oh-so-wacky T-shirt is the #1 selling design in J-List's history, and it's so cool it's been featured in a "test your geek chic" quiz in Newsweek. The exact translation is "Now accepting applications for a Japanese girlfriend," and it's a great potential ice-breaker between you and someone from Japan, even if it's just to banter about what the T-shirt says. We've got alternate versions of the design, including an oh-so-warm hoodie, a "Japanese boyfriend" version, shirts with the message written in a calligraphy brush style, and even a spiffy embroidered hat. Our Japanese Girlfriend T-shirts have even been known to work on a few occasions, and we've got a wall in San Diego showing customers who have sent in pictures of their newfound loves.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Culture shock for foreigners coming to Japan, reflections on the Japanese word "nantonaku" and test culture as a Great Democritizer in Japan

When a foreigner comes to live in Japan, he or she is in for some changes. I remember my first hours in this country back in 1991, gazing out the window of the train from Narita Airport to Tokyo and thinking -- stupidly -- how the beautiful "kawara" tiles on all the houses made them look, well, very Japanese. My next bit of culture shock was seeing more vending machines in one city block than were installed in my entire university back home -- and that's not even counting the ones selling beer. Japanese homes are smaller than those in the U.S. and make use of space more efficiently, however this means that stairs tend to be steeper and much more dangerous if you have a fall. There are plenty of other large and small surprises for a gaijin moving to Japan. People riding bicycles while holding an umbrella over their heads, or using umbrellas in the snow. Toilets with a faucet in the top to let you wash your hands with the clean water as it flows into the tank. The strange custom of crosswalks to play "Comin' Through the Rye" when it's time to cross, as an aid for blind people. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is how used to Japan a person can get, a thought that occurred to me last night while I was sitting at the kotatsu wearing my yukata, enjoying a beer and some saki-ika, dried, shredded "squid jerky" that gets more delicious the longer you live here.


When you learn a language as different from English as Japanese is, you sometimes run into words or phrases that can't be easily translated from one side to the other. My wife, who is not mechanically inclined, bought an Alpine car stereo for her BMW but complained to me that it didn't have a CD player. It took me less than a full second to look at her stereo, guess that there must be a front panel that hides the CD slot, and verify this by pushing the panel out of the way, revealing the slot. "How did you know to do that?" she asked me, and I replied, "Nantonaku." This is a word that's very hard to pin down in English, and itself speaks volumes about how full of subtle nuances the Japanese language can be. Literally meaning "somehow" or "some way," nantonaku (pronounced NAHN-toh-NAH-koo) is used in vague situations when you can't pin down a concrete reason for something. It could be translated as "without thinking about it" "without deep consideration," or in the case of me figuring out my wife's car stereo, "I just knew." If you love movies directed by Ron Howard but aren't sure why, you might use the phrase "nantonaku suki," or if the dreamy art of Japanese illustrator Range Murata calms you, you might use the phrase in that situation, too. It's probably a word most Japanese wouldn't expect a foreigner to know, so if you want to surprise a Japanese person, try pulling out the word and watch the look of shock on their faces.

February is month of Valentines Day, when girls and women throughout Japan will be thinking about which chocolates to give to their boyfriends, husbands and fathers. It's is also the height of Juken Season, when millions of Japanese students will be taking their college entrance exams that will determine what university (for current high school students) or what high school (for current junior high students) they will attend. It's one of the most important moments in the life of a Japanese person, and students aiming for the best schools have studied for years in preparation. Japan has had a long tradition of requiring tests to gain admittance to universities, government jobs, and other high-ranking positions, and while the system isn't perfect, it's certainly better than letting the son of whoever has the most money or power get special treatment -- by and large, the tests are a real mechanism of Democratization here. Another benefit of Japan's test culture is the effect it has on young people, forcing them to set goals and really reflect on their education during some very impressionable and potentially dangerous years. I'm convinced all human beings have a "bad judgement gene" that kicks in between the ages of 16-22 or so, when young people will be compelled to do things that aren't in their overall best interests (apologies to young people reading this, who will insist that there is no such gene, but will then realize that I was right when they get to their mid-20s or so). Because of the focus on tests, a large number of Japanese are busy dedicating themselves to their studies when they might otherwise be out getting into trouble.

We've got a new wacky Japanese T-shirt for fans of Japan's "otaku" culture, a word which describes the current generation of fans of Japanese anime, manga and other forms of popular culture from the Land of the Rising Sun. Our new shirt features a replica of a sign visible in every train station in Japan, showing "Otaku" as the current train station, with O-Daiba (the area where the famous Comic Market doujinshi convention is held) displayed as the previous station and Akihabara (Tokyo's electronics and otaku culture Mecca) as the next stop. A great new kanji shirt design for otakus all over the world -- check it out now!

More pictures from Japan, just for you, Dear Reader. This is the view of Asama-san, just about the biggest volcano in the Kanto area, as srrn from our balcony in Karuizawa.

Testing the zoom on my new digital camera. Yes, that's smoke rising from the cone.

Daughter Rina enjoying some snow.

Japan's "Strawberry Boom" is in full swing!