Saturday, February 17, 2007

A new appreciation for American medicine, all about the word 'baka' and a really annoying girl in a yellow dress who I can't stop listening to...

It was Thomas Paine -- a possible ancestor of mine, although I somehow doubt it -- who uttered the words, "These are the time that try men's souls." Strike the word "men" and insert "gaijin" and you know what it's like to be sick in a country like Japan. Although I resisted as best I could, it seems I've managed to pick up the bug that my wife and daughter had, and now I'm pecking away at the computer while wearing one of those Japanese health masks, and feeling quite miserable. No matter how much I may like Japan, one of the fundamental rules of human beings is that when you're feeling under the weather, you want familiar remedies that you know will work. Japan has plenty of cold and flu medicines on the market, with names like Benzablock, Paburon, Ruru and even a local version of Contac, but they just don't seem be strong enough for my oversized American body. There are differences in how medicines are sold, too -- I'll never forget the first time I got sick in Japan, trekking feverishly to the supermarket to buy medicine because that's where you go in the U.S., then being told that I had to find a drug store instead. Happily, I always keep a small stockpile of American medicines in the house, from Nyquil to Dimetapp and Vicks Vapor Rub and so on, so hopefully I'll be okay in no time.

Without a doubt, one of the most famous words of Japanese is baka, the all-purpose insult that takes the place of many more anatomically colorful words in English. Meaning "stupid" or "idiot," the word is used by Japanese of all ages, from three-year-olds to the elderly. Someone nearly hits your car in an intersection? Let fly with a baka yaro! ("stupid jerk!"). Your gaijin husband who shall remain nameless mistakes a mimikaki ear scoop for one of those spoons used in Japanese tea ceremony? The proper response to this would be, baka ja nai? ("what are you, stupid?"). The word is also used to describe someone who goes overboard with love of something, like "oya-baka," parent-fool, the word for mothers and fathers who are absolutely ga-ga over their own kids; and "tsuri-baka," meaning fishing-fool, someone who likes to fish so much that he does it whenever he can. The word is also found in Japanese proverbs, like Baka ni tsukeru kusuri wa nai," or there is no cure for stupidity." The word baka (馬鹿) is written with the characters for "horse" and "deer" and there's an interesting legend about how this word came to be. It seems that in ancient China there was an Emperor who was not very well liked by his retainers. One day, one of his underlings presented the Emperor with a deer, instead of a horse as was customary back in those days. When the Emperor pointed out that it was a deer, the man insisted that no, it's a horse. He kept this up until he convinced his lord that the deer was, in fact, a horse, and thus Emperor became famous throughout the land for being so stupid that he couldn't tell the difference between the two animals.

Another trait I respect about the Japanese is their tendency towards kinben (KEEN-ben、勤勉), or diligence and hard work. The famous image of an industrious Japanese salarymen is one that everyone is familiar with, but children in Japan are encouraged to work hard, too, with a general culture that expects kids to put in 1-2 hours of studying per evening, on top of any juku night classes they may attend. Several times a week there are quiz shows that aim to interest the minds of young people, like Test the Nation, which presents questions to viewers and lets them keep track of their own scores. We're big fans of TV Champion, a show that usually pits teams against each other doing things like baking bread in the shapes of famous buildings or making works of art out of origami. Last night's episode involved four very smart kids who underwent an amazing battery of quiz questions before a winner was finally determined, and our whole family was hanging on every question. One of my favorite food items sold by J-List are Shigekix (shi-geh-kicks), super tart "hard gummy" candies in flavors like lemon, cola and ramune. In their newest series of TV commercials, which I've posted in the product descriptions on the site, a strange but irresistible girl in a yellow dress sings a song inside the brains of students, tying the BCAA Amino Acids and Gaba in their products and the stimulation of the tart taste to students hoping to do better in their studies.

More random pics that I'm not sure if I've posted yet. This is just about the most attractive building in our city, a little community center and bus stop. This is where our bus goes to/from when we go to Narita .

I ducked into the Toys "R" Us to see if they had new Star Wars figures (they had nothin'). They did have a cool item for Yamato/Star Blazers fans, including a real Wave Motion Gun for you to shoot.

My camera. Whee.

SIgn in our local soba restaurant.
"Please smoke as little as possible."

Update on the Ferris Wheel project -- thanks to reporting from these fine people at TBS, it looks like the project has been scrapped. Banzai!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The history of Valentine's Day in Japan, thoughts on why the Japanese are so harmonious, and a really cute picture of the Yamato

You probably know that they do Valentine's Day a little differently in Japan than in the West. Here, Feb. 14th is a day for women and girls to give chocolate to men and boys, and all throughout Japan, millions of fathers, husbands, boyfriends and would-be-boyfriends look forward to scoring some chocolatey goodness. In Japan, you never receive a gift without giving one in return, called o-kaeshi, and March 14 has been designated as "White Day" when males give something back to females who gave them chocolate the month before. (In South Korea they've taken this a step further with "Black Day" on April 14th, a day when single males who didn't receive chocolate bitterly eat black noodles, wallowing in their single-ness.) My son and I were looking forward to some delicious handmade chocolate today but we're out of luck, as both my wife and daughter are bedridden with this year's bout of influenza that's going around. Zan-nen! (ZAHN-nehn, meaning "what a bummer!")

In case you'd like to know the history of Valentine's Day in Japan, I'll tell you. The first Valentine's Day advertisement in Japan appeared in Showa 11 (1936), when a chocolate shop in Kobe called Morozoff promoted its wares as being perfect for lovers to enjoy together. World War II got in the way, and it wasn't until after the war that people could think about anything as frivolous as chocolate. In 1958, the manager of the Isetan department store in Shinjuku got the idea of having a Western-style Valentine's Day chocolate sale, but it was a total flop -- they sold just five boxes of chocolates! Attempts to raise awareness of the day continued with poor results, but in the 1970s, chocolate maker Morinaga hit on the idea to promote Valentine's Day as a day for women to give chocolate to boys and confess their love, and the rest is history. Currently, 60% of females in Japan report giving chocolate to someone, which makes for a lot of happy fathers, husbands, boyfriends and would-be-boyfriends.

I've talked before about what the Japanese call kokumin-sei (koh-ku-meen- SAY), a kind of "national personality" that's basically the essence of what makes Koreans so Korean and the French so very French. One of my favorite aspects of the Japanese is their dislike of confrontation and general willingness to get along with each other on a daily basis. By and large, you won't find yourself being hassled much in Japan, and even some of the scarier people you might encounter, like yakuza in the public bath with their full-body tattoos, are quite polite as long as you're polite to them. This harmonious attitude extends to the legal system, too, making lawsuits extremely rare. When there's an automobile accident, for example, the two insurance companies work it out between themselves, weighing the various factors before coming to an agreement on how to divide fault between the two parties, and it's virtually unheard of to have issues decided in a courtroom. There are quite a few identifiable mechanisms that help the Japanese get through the day harmoniously, like the mantra sho ga nai" which means it can't be helped," and the basic golden rule of society that you should never cause meiwaku (inconvenience) to others. There are some possible theories about why the Japanese are so good at getting along. Perhaps it comes from having to learn to live in a small country with many people around, or maybe it has to do with Japan's decision to become a peaceful country after their defeat in World War II, or just maybe it's a by-product of the long period of absolute rule by the Shogunate during the feudal Edo Period. My own theory comes from the ethnic name of the Japanese people, the Yamato, which is also Japan's first name for its own country, dating back to the 4th Century. The characters literally mean either "Great Peace" or "Great Harmony," and it seems natural to me that a country with such a name would value getting along with one another in a peaceful way.

Remember that you can get all the great anime, manga, toy/hobby, fashion, and other magazines in Japan sent to you each month, thanks to J-List's popular Reserve Subscription service. Here's how it works: for most items, you have the option of either paying month-to-month or paying for a full year in advance. If you choose the former option, we'll reserve the current issue of the magazine(s) you want each month, charging them to a credit card on file if like, or else by check/money order or Paypal. The amount charged is the same every month, e.g. $8.50 each issue of Newtype Japan, plus the shipping. If you want to choose the annual payment option, you can pay for all the issues and SAL shipping together and get a discount. The annual option is great for anyone who wants to pre-pay for the issues (including libraries and universities who use our services), and our convenient month-to-month option is recommended for anyone who wants the flexibility to stop or change subscriptions at any time.

Some friends of ours just built a new house (on top of a restaurant), and invited us over. It was built by our friend Mr. K.

Is this not cool? It's like a showroom for Pier 1 Imports, but in a good way.

Like many in Japan, they had only a little room to work with, so their tatami room is only a 4-jo. You measure rooms in Japan using tatami mats, e.g. this room is quite big, it must be a 20-tatami (jo) room, and so on.

Picture from in front of our favorite soba noodle restaurant. This is the same racoon-dog thing as in the Ghibli film Raccoon Wars.

My, he is happy to see us! This is just one of the many ways Japan can confusing poor gaijin. Supposedly the testicles on these raccoon statues are good luck, although I couldn't comment on the penis.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The warmest winter ever in Japan, all about the Japanese kanji character 'ki' and excitement at my son's school

We've been watching the extra-cold winter dumping lots of snow on the U.S. this year and feeling more than a little guilty, what with Japan experiencing the warmest winter its had in decades and all. The previous 1960 record for the latest snowfall in the Tokyo area has already been smashed, and with the bizarre T-shirt weather continuing, there's talk that this might be the first snowless winter since they started keeping records back in 1876. One of the most enjoyable times to be in Japan is sakura season, when the cherry blossoms bloom with exploding fireworks of beauty, but it's been so warm this year that everyone is sure the sakura will bloom at least a full month earlier. There's also a lot of concern that with such mild weather this year, there'll be less snow in snowpacks in the mountains, leading to water shortages in the summer.

Sometimes part of the fun of studying a language like Japanese is "surfing" the linguistic elements that are totally different from anything found in one's native language. One of the most common kanji characters is ki (気), a rather all-purpose concept for expressing abstract ideas (read chi in Chinese). Although it can be translated as spirit, soul, nature, heart, mood, feeling, or atmosphere, it mainly deals with (spiritual) energy and a person's awareness. The character is found in some elementary words that students of the language encounter right away, such as genki (happy, energetic), tenki (weather) or kuki (air). The word can express intention (seppuku suru ki = the intention to commit ritual suicide, wish I could think of a better example ^_^), and feelings or emotion (kimochi ii = that feels good). In anime series like Dragonball Z, when a character gets so filled with energy that he literally glows with fire, the word for that fire would be ki. The concept is also used in martial arts and yoga, which seek to focus the mind's ki in beneficial ways -- it also pops up in words like kiai, the verbal yell you release when focusing your strength on a task. The word can be found in several Japanese idioms that are used quite often, such as ki wo tsukete (be careful; literally "fix your body's energy and attention on the task at hand"), or ki wo tsukau (to be considerate of; literally "to use your ki on behalf of another person").

One of the most popular "talents" (an all-purpose word meaning singer/actor/ comedian/whatever) in Japan is Takuya Kimura, a member of the popular group SMAP, the male idol band that dominates much of Japan's music scene. Takuya, who plays the voice of Howl in Howl's Moving Castle, has been called both the "sexiest man in Japan" as well as the domestic version of Brad Pitt, mainly because Levi's hired "Kim-Taku" for their jeans commercials to counter Edwin's successful line of commercials featuring "Bra-Pii." Although they started out as a Backstreet Boys-like group, SMAP has utterly woven itself into the fabric of Japan's pop culture, and you really can't turn the TV on without seeing one or more members of the group hosting a variety show or doing their gourmet cooking competition thing or pulling some gag on the air, like when George Lucas came to Japan and they presented him with a beautiful Japanese sword, which turned out to be a cheap plastic light saber. Recently there's a rumor going around that Takuya and his wife, former singer Shizuka Kudo, are going to put their daughter in my son's special English elementary school this April, which has set the hearts of the school mothers all aflutter with thoughts of Japan's sexiest man attending parents' day with them.

J-List sells a unique line of original T-shirts, hoodies and embroidered hats featuring funny and wacky kanji messages, and today we've gotten in a cool new design for you. Every once in a while you hear of a Japanese man who wasn't able to resist his own particular urges, and who got in trouble peeking at pretty girls. Our new wacky T-shirt warns people who see it to beware of nozoki -- peeping toms, who like to watch women secretly -- with a hilarious new design. Check it out on the site, now!

Heh, I'll tell you my own favorite game. All those newfangled video games are okay, but I'm still loyal to the original Unreal Tourmanent, released in, I think, 1999. I'm using it on my Intel MacBook Pro, and the fact that it plays so nicely (even with 300 bots, see below) in Rosetta is really an amazing thing.

The reason it's so fun is that there's a nuke you can use to kill your enemies.

Of course, that's not fun enough, so here's what I do. Load the game, type SUMMON WARHEADLAUNCHER unless I'm on a level that has the nuke, get the warhead, then type ALLAMMO. Then instead of having one pansy nuke you have 999 of them. Muhahaha! LOADED is another fun command that gives you all weapons in the game.

You can then addbots if you like so that you have 100, 200 or more enemies to kill rather than the default of 16. Note that adding too many bots at once can overload the machine since most of the bots appear at the same few spawning spots which causes them to explode, and the computer has to draw 100 x 300 bits of expanding flesh on your screen.

This lets you discover a new kind of game, where basically everyone is trying to kill you but you've got a nuke. You can do fun game of trying to kill everyone else (up to 300 bots) without using any weapons other than the nuke. This means you need to shoot and duck behind obstacles, or shoot at the ceiling to take out someone before they get too close. It's quite a challenge. Another fun thing is to slow the game down so you can set up extra beautiful kills.

There's something about running down the hallway in the contrail of a tactical nuke you've just shot that's so much fun. Incidentally I've played this game so much in the past my eyes actually got infected. That's not good, is it?

Ah, beautiful stress relief... I realize my love of cheating at games goes back to my Captain Kirk complex, since I look up to him as the father I didn't have (Captain Kirk, Carl Sagan and Ernest Hemingway). I guess using NOCLIP or god mode in a game is just my own answer to the Kobayashi Maru test.