Saturday, February 24, 2007

The "Princess Di" of Japan, about Japan as a "vertical" society, and I can see the Sphinx from my house

There's a minor hullabaloo going on between Japan and Australia right now after the publication of a controversial book on Princess Masako, the Harvard- and Oxford-educated woman who became "Japan's Diana" when she married Prince Naruhito, the future Emperor. In the book, author Ben Hills argues that Masako has been made a "Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne" and delves into the various problems she's had to deal with since joining the Japanese Royal Family in 1993 (I have a special commemorative 500 yen coin from back then in my house somewhere). While he overplays things a bit for their dramatic value, it's true that the past 14 years haven't exactly been a Cinderella story for poor Masako-sama, who had visions of reforming Japan's Imperial Household Agency with modern, Western-influenced ideas before the weight of 2000 years of tradition wore her down. The book has brought about quite a backlash from Japan, which highlights one of the odder aspects of this otherwise free-thinking democracy: one does not criticize the Imperial Family. Now that a male heir has been born to Naruhito's younger brother, a lot of the pressure is off poor Masako to get pregnant again. Japanese history is measured in eras that go with the reign of each emperor, with the Showa Era (1925-1989) being the reign of Emperor Hirohito, and the current Heisei Era (1990-present) being the current Emperor Akihito, who is getting on in years. I wonder what the next era will be called?

Last time I talked about how Japan's society is more ordered than the U.S. or Europe, organized in a way that literally creates a pecking order from the lowest to the highest, from the neighborhood dog that comes around sniffing for scraps all the way up to the Emperor himself. There are mechanisms found in Japanese society that reinforce this up-down nature, such as senpai and kohai, a person's senior or junior in a school or organization, a heavy focus on treating people who are older than you with more respect and receiving this respect from those younger than you, and a system of polite language that we could never conceive of in English. In practice, Japan becomes a "vertical" society, where the U.S. is theoretically more "horizontal," and almost nothing is allowed to mess up the tidy little system that exists here. When my sister entered the second grade, the teachers decided she was too advanced and moved her to the third grade, something that would never happen in Japan, as it would mess up the balance that people depend on throughout their lives. One by-product of this up-down structure is that there are barriers of politeness in place that keep me from being "friends" with someone who is much older or younger than me when speaking Japanese with them -- although there's no problem if we converse in English.

Near our house, we can see the Sphinx, the Statue of Liberty, and many other interesting wonders of world. These are pachinko parlors, a major source of entertainment for many Japanese men and women in Japan. An odd game which I don't pretend to understand, you basically buy a bucket of balls for $50, then sit for hours trying to hold a controller in just the right position to make most of the balls go into certain holes in the pachinko machine. Since "gambling" is illegal in Japan, except for certain events like horse, boat and bicycle racing, you don't win money if you get more balls than you started out with -- you get valuable prizes which you redeem for cash at a shady building next to the pachinko parlor. (Remind me to talk about the concepts of tatemae, the way we pretend things are, and honne, the way they are in reality.) Pachinko is quite a competitive business to be in, and operators (who always seem to be getting involved with some crime or another) work very hard to bring in the newest machines in -- with little video screens or cute anime-style characters printed on them, for example, or recently, pachinko machines based on famous anime series.

J-List loves PC dating-sim games, a great way to interact with beautiful girls (or guys) on your Windows computer, and we carry virtually every title available in English for fans, with many titles available in Internet Download Editions. We've recently gone through and added opening and demo movies for many popular games that you can watch, including Brave Soul, Heart de Roommate, the X-Change saga, Yin-Yang!, Pick Me Honey!, Bazooka Cafe and more. Check them out now!

J-List sells a unique line of original kanji T-shirts, with designs that range from hilarious to aesthetically beautiful to just plan cool to wear. We've added several T-shirts and Hoodies to our discount page, which we're closing out to make room for future designs. It's a great opportunity to pick up a great original shirt that won't be available again and get it at a great price too, but you should hurry as quantity is limited and sizes do sell out. If you're a big person you should also check out the site, as we've got several XXL and XXXL sized shirts there for you, all at great prices, too.

Remember that J-List carries over 3000 amazing products you can only find in Japan. One of our specialties is Domo-kun, the super cute plush toy that is the official spokesmonster of NHK, Japan's public broadcasting network. Unfortunately nearly all of the products we carry are out of production and can no longer be stocked by us, meaning that if you'd like to score a Domo-kun pen, plush keychain or the infamous "whenever you ... God kills a kitten" plush toy. So...check our Domo-kun lineup now!

Went to a new restaurant, and thought I'd record the meal I had. I am quite a baka for sukiyaki, and whenever I can eat it like this, I do.

Wow, this place is good -- chopstick instructions in English. I guess writing them in English would be kid of silly.

I don't know if Americans eat much in the way of raw egg (been living in Japan way too long), but it really makes good sukiyaki great for me. Take the boiled meat, put in the egg, and then...

...put it on the rice, so that the egg and soup from the sukiyaki falls down on the rice. Repeat.

They finished off with really good coffee in a really cool Japanese cup. The cost for this meal? Something like $7. And as long time readers may remember, I judge every restaurant by its ice coffee, which was quite good, a solid 8 or 8.5. So I had no complaints at all.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Understanding Japanese society through business cards, some fun Japanese words that are pregnant with meaning, and all about Shinjuku

I was making up some Japanese business cards for one of my employees yesterday, trying different layouts and fonts to see what looked best. As I worked on the design for the "name card" (as business cards are called here), something seemed wrong to me, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Then it hit me: I'd left off one of the most important parts, the job title. Organization is very important in a place like Japan, and just as the entire country is ordered into prefectures, cities, towns and villages, with no unincorporated areas anywhere, people are generally expected to fit into pre-defined slots, e.g. programmer, graphic designer, accountant, city employee, and so on. Everyone must have an occupation associated with their name for people to know how to categorize them, and when proper categories aren't available, allowances are made, such as the recent additions of sub-groups like "freeter," a person who only works part-time jobs without ever officially joining a company as a full-time employee or starting a career; or NEET, a term for a young person living with their parents and "Not in Educational, Employment or Training," i.e. loafing and surfing the net all day. When I started J-List, I encountered some opposition from my wife's family, who didn't think it was a good idea to trade a secure career teaching English for the uncertainty of starting a business on the Internet. I realized later that this was because the concept of an "entrepreneur" was not defined as a valid category in their minds, and they didn't know how to feel about a son-in-law who didn't fit neatly into one of the pre-defined slots...which suited my American sense of individualism just fine.

Any way you look at it, English is a convoluted language, with grammar and vocabulary taken haphazardly from many sources, including Olde English, French, Greek, Latin and listening to young people these days, Japanese. The Japanese language is much the same, originally based on the indigenous (pre-6th century) language of the Yamato people dwelling in the Nara Valley, influenced by 1500 years of kanji and 250 years of national isolation, and then exposed to a huge amount of foreign loan words in modern times. There's a category of four-syllable (or four kana) words used here that are so pregnant with meaning they boggle the mind, and as is often the case with nihongo, you can't ask yourself why they mean what they mean but must instead just accept them as gestalt units. First is sekkaku (seh-KAH-koo), which carries the implication of having gone to great trouble to do something for someone only to have them not appreciate your efforts. Another fun word is yappari (yah-PAH-ree), which means "just as I thought" or "as I expected" or "Aha! I knew you'd be trying to peek into the girl's bath!" When you learn something that surprises you, you might use the phrase naruhodo (nah-roo-hoh-doh), which can be translated as "wow, I didn't know that" or "I see your point," and on a TV drama, a character picking up some information from subtle, unspoken clues might mutter this word to themselves as a signal to viewers that he'd found another piece of a puzzle. Finally there's tonikaku (TOH-ni-kah-koo), which just means "at any rate" "regardless of that fact" or just "anyway." When my bilingual son was growing up, he got confused and accidentally combined English and Japanese stems to create the hybrid word "toni-way" (tonikaku + anyway), which has been a running joke in our family ever since.

One of the first things I did after arriving in Japan back in 1991 was hop on a train to Tokyo to explore Shinjuku, one of the most famous parts of Japan's sprawling capital, which I'd only glimpsed through the window of manga and anime until that time. One of Tokyo's 23 wards, Shinjuku is a bustling mini-city unto itself, with sprawling department and electronics stores, restaurants and drinking establishments. Because it happens to contain some of the only stable land in the earthquake-prone area, virtually all of Tokyo's high-rise buildings are located in Shinjuku, including the monstrous 48-story Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (Tokyo's "city hall") and virtually everything seen in the film Lost in Translation. Shinjuku Station is the busiest in the world, with a mind-boggling 2 million passengers passing through each day as they rush to get to work or home. The station is so massive that the only thing to do is divide Shinjuku into quadrants based on what train exit you're using, e.g. take the east exit to score some good Indian food, or the south exit to get to that one good bookstore, and so on. Shinjuku's Kabuki-cho section is one of Japan's leading drinking districts, too, and a complex economy has formed around the thousands of tired salarymen who get rid of their daily stress there, throwing some back with co-workers before heading home.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Japan as the land of safety, small conveniences of living in Japan, and the reason for that wacky "Engrish"

I've written before about how Japan is a very safe place -- so safe it might just kill you with boredom. Swimming pools in Japan generally have two or more lifeguards on duty at all times, although it'd be pretty hard to drown since the water is never deeper than your waist, and dangerous things like diving boards are not allowed. My son and I didn't realize what we were missing until we went to visit family in Maryland, and got to jump off the high dive at the local pool, something a non-Olympic swimmer could only dream of doing in Japan. People are constantly bombarded with silly safety messages here, which remind you to "stand behind the yellow line" on train platforms because apparently trains are dangerous or something, and there's even a voice to tell you how to get on or off an escalator safely in department stores. Now the latest trend in obsessive safety thinking is condemning swings, sliding boards, jungle gyms and other equipment at playgrounds due to an infinitesimally small number of tragic accidents involving children at play. Japan is nothing if not the land of duality, though, and just as it tries to "think of the children" on the playground, the country still lacks some of the basic safety attitudes we take for granted in the U.S., like always using approved child carseats when driving, using baby gates to keep little ones from dangerous parts of the home, and so on.

There are some key areas where the U.S. is well ahead of Japan, including availability of Mexican food and the proliferation of sports bar-themed restaurants with excellent beer. One area where Japan has a comfortable lead, though, is the delivering of packages via its takuhai (private delivery company) system, as seen in the Ghibli animated classic Kiki's Delivery Service except with packages being delivered by polite, efficient men in trucks rather than by a witch and black cat on a broomstick. One of the great conveniences of flying out of Japan is being able to send your suitcases to the airport via companies like Yamato or Sagawa for around $9 per suitcase, allowing you to hop on the train or bus to the airport without a lot of heavy stuff to lug along with you. I recently bought a used Mac G4 tower from a friend to use as a backup server at J-List. My friend dropped the heavy box off at the 7-11 at 9 pm on a Sunday night, and the package reached me, two prefectures away, less than 12 hours later. Total cost? Just $15.

As everyone knows, the Japanese are capable of coming up with some amazingly creative (?) English phrases, like "Body Feels EXIT," "Get Chance and Luck," "Fappy, Fax Makes It Happy" or "All Your Base Are Belong To Us." There are several reasons why this happens, including the fact that the Japanese nearly always learn English in a bubble, sitting passively as grammar and vocabulary are explained to them in Japanese by Japanese teachers, with the amount of linguistic input from living, breathing native English speakers being quite limited. Also, when a Japanese person studies English for six years (high school) or ten years (college), it's understandable that they'll want to strut a bit and use what they've learned, even if it results in something like "For restrooms, go back towards your behind." But the biggest reason there's so much colorful English here has to be that, to many Japanese, English is really just a decoration, something to sprinkle around to add color to one's environment without thinking about it too deeply. I was reminded of this fact over the weekend, when I took my family to the Pizza La in Karuizawa and sat down in the to enjoy some pizza. Perhaps because Karuizawa is a town discovered and colonized by Europeans soon after the Meiji Period, the restaurant had a bookshelf filled with English books for customers to browse through while they ate...although no one in the place was showing any interest in them. My family dug in though, each finding some interesting book to page through -- I scored a biography of Hemingway from the 1960s that looked interesting. We even did something we'd never have done in the U.S., liberating some of the books to read at home, since it was clear no one was going to be wanting them anytime soon, and an unread book is such a lonely thing. I'll make it up to the Pizza La people by bringing some of the English childrens' books my kids are too old for by next time I'm in the neighborhood.

One of the fun things about visiting Tokyo is walking down the street and getting pocket tissue handed out to you by people advertising businesses like banks, hairdressers, or newly opened restaurants. J-List lets you experience this thrill with the free authentic Japanese pocket tissue packet that we include with most every order you made from us. We say "most," because we won't include tissue with orders in cases where the tissue would bend or damage your order (like a thin magazine or doujinshi). You can also buy ten of our wacky pocket tissues for the low price of just $3.00, if you have an especially runny nose.

Our weekly (almost) trip to the mountains was pretty cool this time around.

One of the books from the Pizza La (and yes, it does take time to learn to stop saying Pizza LA, as in Pizza Los Angeles) was a great book on the Titanic.

Shots from an electronics store where I'd dashed in for something. This is the NTT Docomo Mushroom.

Softbank, aka Vodafone, is kicking butt with their phone types. This is a great series of phones based on the PANTONE color chart.

And more!

Speaking of kicking butt, they've been scoring big with some famous names.