Friday, March 02, 2007

The origins of Japan's cult of "studying," more warm weather for Tokyo, and the latest in Otaku Culture from Japan

Japan is a very seasonal place, with specific things done only during the appropriate times of year. August is when you wear a yukata (cotton kimono) and hit the summer festivals, and if you want to enjoy tsukimi or sitting outdoors and taking in the beauty of the full moon, October is the time for that. Right now it's "desk season," when furniture retailers throughout Japan display high-quality study desks for the new crop of first graders who start school in April. Japan is very much a meritocracy, and the way to get ahead in life is benkyo (studying), and so kids are taught from a very early age that hitting the books is a good way to show your thanks to your parents for bringing you into the world. The desks themselves are really very well designed, made of higher quality wood than the desk I have at J-List, featuring built-in bright lights for reading and many small drawers for kids to organize their study materials. They're also designed to grow with the user, with cute plastic mats with anime character art that can be removed when the child gets older. Buying a study desk is event in every child's school life, and it's a cold-hearted parent or grandparent who can resist buying the best for little Taro or Hanako. Is $700 a lot for a study desk for a first grader? I've lived in Japan so long I'm really not sure.

Japanese study desk

Speaking of seasons, Japan's warmest winter in living memory continues, with many a balmy afternoon -- I was even able to put the top down on my Miata a few times last month, usually unthinkable in February. It's been so warm that the kaika or first blooming of the sakura trees, which is reported on as a point of national pride by the news media here, happened a full month earlier than usual. Except for the strong winds called kara-kaze that blow down from the Japan Alps every few days -- which sound so similar to the F/A-18 jets that race over our house in San Diego from the former "Top Gun" airbase that I sometimes forget whether I'm in Japan or the States -- it's been really turn-off-the-computer-and-go-play-catch-with-my-son weather.

As Japan's general fascination with otaku culture continues to grow, one word you hear a lot is Akiba-kei, which literally means "related to Akihabara," the region of Tokyo traditionally known for its electronics stores but increasingly coming to serve as a center for anime, manga and cosplay culture. There are dozens of "Maid Cafe" establishments where you can go and have cake and coffee served to you by a beautiful girl in a maid outfit, and this category is always morphing into sub-genres, such as Imoto Cafe where all the girls pretend to be your younger sister and call you Oniichan, and Tsundere Cafe where the girls act like stereotypical bitchy-but-cute characters found in most every anime series these days. The latest potential boom in Akihabara might be the Mimikaki Cafe, where a beautiful woman will lay your weary head on her lap and spend thirty minutes with a traditional bamboo ear pick, gently scraping the ear wax out and taking all your cares away. If you're not lucky enough to be in the Akihabara area this week, we've got some substitutes available at J-List that might help you experience this fun side of Japan.

J-List carries PC dating-sim games, fun anime games, all carefully translated into English and compatible with English Windows computers, with stories for all tastes and genres. Today we're happy to announce that the latest title from Hirameki International, Pieces of Wonder, is in stock and shipping. A bold and interesting game in which you must guide three girls -- Amane, Syouko and Taki -- as they battle an alien race intent on taking over our world. A great RPG+ADV with real combat as well as adventures to resolve with each of the girls. Get it now!

This month's Japanese adult video actress is the delicious Arisa Kanno, the elegant and stylish actress performing exclusively with Soft on Demand and their related companies. Arisa-chan was born December 9, 1984, in Tokyo. She's 160 (5'2"), and her "three sizes" are 82 (B), 56 (W) and 82 (H), making for a fabulous hourglass shape that's incidentally called kubire (koo-BI-reh) in Japanese. Her hobbies are running and playing volleyball, her favorite type of man is the strong, self-confident type, and her dream is to run in the Honolulu Marathon someday and study abroad in America.

Also, we've picked the new "H-Game of the Month" and it's a really fun title, Gibo: Stepmother's Sin, a dark exploration of some great themes from Guilty and Peach Princess. You grew up a happy boy, until the day you came home and found your mother in the arms of a man who wasn't your father. Her unfaithfulness destroyed your happy home, and now you are mistrustful of the very word "mother." But one day your father announces that he's getting remarried, but instead of being old, your new stepmother is young and beautiful. How will you test her to see if she's any different from the rest? Available this month only at a special price!

Moseying around the kids' desks while shopping for a new chair for myself. A cute little girl came up to me and said "Hello!" then ran back to her parents. This desk is for little fans of One Piece.

Here's a Super Mario desk for studious gamers.

This being Japan, there's silly English all over the place.

When my son was smaller, he was a Mushi King type, definitely. In case you don't know it, all Japanese kids just love beetles of all types.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

On the relationship of foreigners and the Japanese, the "gaijin samurai" and an unexpected crime wave in Japan

All countries have foreigners living in their midst, whether its a Swedish college student working for a season at a ski resort in Arizona or an Iranian assembling windshield washer motors at a factory in Nagoya. Japan's 1.6 million foreigners currently make up around 1.5% of the population here, which sounds like a lot until you consider that the foreign-born populations of countries like Germany and the U.S. is 9% and 11%, respectively. As you probably know from reading J-List, the Japanese word for foreigner is gaijin (GUY-jihn) which could also be translated as "outsider" since the characters literally mean "outside-person." Because the word can carry negative connotations, you'll always hear the more polite word gaikokujin or "outside-country-person" used on the NHK news and in formal situations. Japan's first encounter with Westerners came in 1543, when Portuguese sailors washed up on Tanegashima, an island near Kyushu. To the Japanese, these foreigners were Bigfoot-sized giants, disgustingly unhygienic and very hairy, and they were called Namban (Southern Barbarians) and thought to be the embodiment of Tengu, legendary long-nosed spirits who lived in the mountains and who loved to cause havoc. We do, don't we?

One of the most influential foreigners in Japanese history would have to be William Adams, an Englishman who arrived in Japan with a Dutch ship in 1600 and who was befriended by Ieyasu Tokugawa, the third of the three unifiers of Japanese history. Adams' arrival was good timing for Tokugawa, who put the 19 cannon on the ship to good use at the Battle of Sekigahara, the watershed victory that made him the Shogun (military general) of all Japan and ended Japan's Warring States Period. Adams showed the Japanese how to build the first Western-style ships, and freely shared his knowledge of astronomy and navigation. As he rose in rank in the service of the Shogun, he eventually became his personal advisor and translator. In thanks for his service, he was made the only gaijin samurai in history, given honorary swords and a fief with retainers in present-day Yokohama. If you've read your James Clavell, you know that this is the basis for the book Shogun.

Japan is experiencing an unexpected crime wave, as the rising cost of metals is causing unsavory elements of society to steal anything that's not nailed down. All throughout the Kanto area there are reports of metal pipes, aluminum siding, wires and other metal objects being stolen from homes, factories and other public places, presumably for shipping for sale to hot markets like China. Even something so lowly as the steel gratings on roads are in demand, and yesterday our city was on the national news when it was reported that sixteen heavy grates had been stolen over the past few days. Additionally, there's been a rash of thefts of traditional solid copper fire bells that are hung outside at Japanese fire stations, some of which are more than 100 years old. We hope the culprits are caught soon.

J-List sells a line of unique Japanese-themed T-shirts, warm hoodies and embroidered hats, with wacky and fun original designs on them. Today we've got a new T-shirt that celebrates one of my favorite things, Japanese beer, with a wacky parody logo that looks great. Let everyone know you love delicious Japanese beer with this wacky new J-List T-shirt.

Neon Genesis Evangelion, the ground-breaking anime series from 1995, is popping up everywhere here in Japan. The Japanese post office has even gotten Eva fever with a rare issuing of Evangelion stamps featuring characters from the series. We've managed to get our hands on some of these stamp sets, for fans looking for something really special to add to their collection, on the site now!

Monday, February 26, 2007

Japan as the land of the middle class, thoghts on Japan and Krispy Kreme, and fun Japanese things you can put on your car

Japan is nothing if not the land of contradictions. On the one hand, society has been organized in a vertical structure that puts barriers of politeness in place, resulting in top-down relationships that shuffle more respect to higher-level individuals (senpai, sensei, etc.) while requiring them to play their part by providing guidance and leadership to those younger than them, picking up the tab at restaurants, and so on. On the other hand, the Japanese have managed to achieve what Marx and Lenin could not, creating a society where 90% or more of the people consider themselves to be part of the same equal social group, in this case Japan's sprawling middle class. It's not exactly clear to my gaijin mind why someone driving a BMW 750i would go out of their way to consider themselves in the same group as those of us of lesser means, but for the most part Japanese of all income levels seem to strongly identify with the middle class. While everyone feeling like they're all part of one big happy in-group is certainly a good thing overall, there are some downsides, too. For example, one of the reasons there are so many "personal finance" (loan shark) companies like ACOM, Promise and Lake, which loan money at 20-30% to people who should know better, is that their customers seem to have a desire to "keep up with the Yamadas" and buy things they don't need to reassure themselves that they're not falling outside the main economic group. The cover of the current Japanese Newsweek has a feature article dealing with this strange phenomenon, entitled "it's okay to live a class-differentiated society, Japan!"

Japanese Krispy Kreme

One observation I've made before about Japan is that it generally seems to follow a decade or so behind the U.S., with many aspects of society appearing in Japan about ten years after making their debut in the States. Everything from the revolution in e-commerce to laws curbing smoking in public places seems to get started in the U.S. then make its way over to Japan after a several-year delay. Quite a few businesses that are successful in Japan merely watched for new trends to emerge in the U.S. -- like home pizza delivery or NetFlix -- and brought the ideas to market locally before the original company could set up shop here. Perhaps the next trend in ideas being imported from the U.S. will be food-related. A couple of weeks ago, I went to Tokyo and happened to pass the new Krispy Kreme doughnut shop that I'd heard had been built in Shinjuku's south side. I didn't think it would be that popular, though, and I was bowled over by the massive press of people waiting two hours or more for their turn to buy. The sight of slender, stylish Tokyoites carrying three dozen doughnuts back the office was also new to me.

The Japanese have some interesting customs when it comes to driving. When waiting at an intersection, it's considered polite to turn your headlights down (put them in "park" mode) so that you don't blind the person in front of you. When someone lets you in front of them, you flash your emergency lights at them twice to say "thank you." And around our city, young men with nothing to do at night will drive around the train station looking for girls in cars, and when they see them they flash their high beams in a gesture that seems to mean "let's go get some coffee together" (an act which is called nampa, apologies to people in Nampa, Idaho). Another interesting car-related thing they do in Japan is the "Beginner's Mark," a green-and-yellow sign that newly licensed drivers must put on their cars for the first year that lets other cars know that the driver may not have as much experience as a full-fledged driver, and presumably give them a wider berth on the road. Similar to this is a Senior Citizen's Mark, an orange-and-yellow sign that older drivers can put on their car (with either magnetic or suction-cup attachment), a way to let other drivers know they should give you the respect you deserve and get out of your way. I like to imagine the confusion in the minds of Japanese people when they wonder why these only-found-in-Japan signs are being displayed on cars in the U.S. -- which is why we sell both on the site, of course.

J-list carries virtually every PC dating-sim game available in English, and we're always happy to see customers discover the interesting and dramatic world of Japan's "H" gaming culture. We also license and publish "doujin" CG collections, which are created by artists for sale at the legendary Comic Market doujinshi convention held twice a year at Tokyo Big Sight. We're happy to report that two of our popular collections are now available as Internet Download Editions, so fans who missed out on these great collections can get them again. First there's Dream World II, a breathtakingly beautiful collection of several separate releases by Japanese artist Kobayashi Yuji that parodies the characters of Evangelion and more. Then enjoy all three of our previous Creamy Angel CD-ROM releases available as an Internet Download, a staggering gigabyte of top "H" artwork by Japanese illustrator Mashitaka, including his speciality of Ah! My Goddess futanari (um, wow).

Remember that the summer anime conventions are not that far off, and what better way to wow 'em at the shows this year than wearing your very own authentic Japanese high school uniform. J-List has an exclusive arrangement with the famous Matsukameya of Nagoya, a company that brings real high school uniforms to fans all around the world. Here's how to order: check the site for the type of uniform you'd like (we've got several styles of uniforms for girls, and a standard gakuran school uniform for guys, too), and find which size is closest to your body measurements on the chart. Then submit your order, and we'll get your new high school uniform off to you as soon as its delivered to us by the company.

Lots and lots of people in line...

Wow, even more people. The line goes all the way down to Tokyu Hands.

Is this the beginning of the end of all those slender Japanese girls that I like so much? [_][_];;

There's so much strange English around me I don't even notice it. But for some reason I felt I had to capture "Gutsy Repair" for all of you.

You may remember that I collect photographs of the little metal "life advice" signs that the local PTA put up about 20 years ago. I found a new one that's great for my daughter: 忠告も君を思う親心, chuukoku mo kimi o omou oya-gokoro, possibly translatable as "Giving advice and warnings to one's children is part of showing our love for them as parents, even if they think we're just yelling at them."