Friday, March 09, 2007

The Japanese concept of "joshiki" (common sense), why there are rice fields everywhere in Japan, and would you pay $3500 to meet Michael Jackson?

One concept that's always interested me is joshiki (JOH-sh'kee) the Japanese "universal common sense" or knowledge that all reasonable people are supposed to possess here. The Japanese have a vast storehouse of this knowledge and it's one of the reasons why Japan seems to be such a harmonious place when viewed from the outside. Have a traffic accident? The insurance companies will work out the percentages of who was at fault according to guidelines the industry has established, so there's never a need for a lawsuit. Going to have a baby? Virtually all babies are born in traditional hospitals, and you almost never hear of alternate birthing methods. Quite a lot of people around the world have chosen a vegetarian lifestyle, but in Japan, it's joshiki that a meal will generally include meat or fish along with vegetables and white rice, and so there are almost no vegans here at all. When I go to the U.S. this summer, one thing that's on my list to do is straighten out my legal affairs and make a new will, something every family man should consider doing regularly. My wife was curious about why I needed to do this, though -- it seems that the Japanese common sense system covers death quite tidily, with all assets distributed in a logical manner, and there's seldom any cause for someone to have a written will in place.
A new Mediterranean-style restaurant opened near a built-up part of our city, so my wife and I went to give it a try. On one side of this restaurant was a bank, a convenience store, and a gas station. On the other side was...a large rice field with a farmer in it, busily preparing his field for the coming planting. Japan is funny that way, mixing industrial, commercial, and agricultural land in ways we wouldn't ever consider doing in the States. Even in Tokyo you can find agriculture going on in areas that seem way too urban to support it. Because there's only a little bit of land to go around, the laws that govern how you can use land are quite strict, and agriculture is given a special status. For example, the area where J-List is located is officially designated as agricultural land, only to be used for growing crops, except for certain circumstances such as plots of land that face the road or individuals building a business that contributes to society, such as a school. When representatives of companies J-List does business within Japan visit us, they're invariably surprised to see a high-tech IT business standing in the middle of fields of swaying rice, which definitely appeals to our rebellious nature.

Would you pay $3500 to see Michael Jackson? That's what several hundred Japanese fans did last night, attending a dinner with the former star and getting to talk with him briefly, and pose for photographs, and most of the attendees said it was a bargain for the chance of a lifetime. The former King of Pop arrived in Japan this week to the cheers of thousands of fans who had camped out at Narita Airport to greet him, and he was soaking all the attention up. He also made a surprise appearance on the popular TV show SMAP x SMAP, in which the five-member "talent" team cooks an exquisite meal on camera while they talk with the guest. You cant have a famous visitor to Japan without Queen of Movie Subtitles Natsuko Toda at his side, and she was there, translating for Michael and the SMAP members as they did their best to make him feel welcome in Japan.

As an dyed-in-the-wool old-school anime fan, I've had some pretty fun moments, from standing for the first time in front of the Studio Alta TV in Shinjuku to that first visit to Tokyo Tower, the icon featured in most every CLAMP anime. I've posed in front of the Shibuya 109 building, slept in my car so I could be among the first 5000 in line for the Comic Market, and even sung the Yamato theme song on the top of Mt. Fuji, in Japanese of course. Another event in my life as an anime fan came when we got the incredible Space Cruiser Yamato 1/350 scale toywe're posting to the site today in, one of the coolest items we've ever carried at J-List. A huge model of Japan's most famous battleship, it's loaded with features, from guns that move by remote control to a Wave Motion Gun that fires. Check it out now!

Remember that J-List has great PC dating-sim games you can buy, with many titles available as Internet Download Editions starting at just $24.95. We're extremely proud of the lineup of great games we've built, and hope you'll try this fun way of interacting with Japan on a new level. We've got games that are humorous and games with highly defined stories and even games that can make you cry. Check out our lineup of PC dating-sim games today!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The needless tragedy of 'ijime,' what's easy and hard about learning Japanese, and the Japanese as the most expressive people on the planet

The other day I went to my son's school to watch the various end-of-year performances the students had prepared for the parents, which included putting on a puppet show and school TV news report all in English, and the entire fifth grade performing a symphony concert for us, too. While I was walking through the halls, I noticed a big poster that said "STOP THE IJIME" with the slogan "we cannot allow bullying to continue -- your courage will end it forever" written below. It's a sad fact that ijime (ee-jee-MEH), the bullying and hazing that happens in schools, is a major social problem here in Japan, and all too often it's given as a the trigger leading to a young person's untimely death. There are several reasons why ijime is such a problem in Japan, beyond the bully-before-you-are-bullied mind-set that is probably present in all kids to some degree. First of all, the Japanese custom of keeping classes of students together all day throughout the school year, with teachers coming and going each hour, might be good for imparting group cooperation skills for forming lifelong friendships, but it also amplifies problems between students. If you have to sit next to a cruel jerk for one hour a day you could probably get through it, but all day, every day, for a whole year? Teachers also sitting together in a large room rather than individual offices is a problem, too, since it makes it difficult for a student to talk to one teacher, especially bad when a teacher is part of the problem. Finally, the near total lack of counseling and therapeutic medicine is also part of the problem, and all too often all kids can do is that most Japanese of activities "gaman" (meaning to endure patiently).

Stop the Ijime!

Each language is special, with unique features that may cause confusion for speakers of other languages. Romance languages like Spanish and French have noun genders, forcing English speakers to puzzle over why a pen is feminine while a pencil is masculine. Although Japanese do consider it a point of pride to think of their language as being especially hard to learn, I am convinced that no language is intrinsically more or less difficult than all the others. Still, there are some barriers to learning Japanese that must be overcome, starting with the two syllable-based writing systems, hiragana (the wavy looking one) and katakana (the boxy, masculine looking one), which you can tackle by memorizing the shapes and what sound they make (we can help). Kanji is also no small challenge, although you'd be surprised how much you can read with just a few hundred characters under your belt after a year or two of study. Grammatically there are some confusing areas, such as having to get used to two different verbs for to be (in a place), aru (ah-ROO) for inanimate objects, and iru (ee-ROO) for anything that moves, like people or animals. Whenever you learn something new, it's important to test it to find the limitations on that new piece of information so your brain can internalize it, and I remember bugging my sensei about which verb was correct for objects like zombies, cyborgs, and Venus Fly-Traps.

There are times when the Japanese seem to be the most expressive people in the world to me. First of all, the fact that nearly everyone has taken several years of English allows for Japanese to use the language as a tool of expression without letting all the biases against bad grammar and meaningless words get in the way. This leads to the Japanese being able to create new English words to fit their needs, like Balance Up (a calorie balanced snack), Wordtank (Canon's popular electronic Japanese dictionary), Meltykiss (delicious fudge squares, love 'em) or the famous Walkman by Sony, which had to sound really silly the first time you heard it. They're also able to express more when writing text on a computer or cellular phone, since Japanese is a two-byte language, allowing fonts to go beyond the limits of mere ASCII, adding everything from musical notes to common symbols as standard characters. Finally, the tradition of putting kana above kanji to show how it should be read is often extended in innovative ways. In Yu-Gi-Oh, for example, they can put an unfamiliar word like Black Magician in English and write tiny kanji that explain the meaning above it, creating a single gestalt for the eye that performs both functions. Similarly, someone translating a Harry Potter novel might use the English word Quidditch but write characters for "air broom ball" above it in kanji, making all aspects of the word instantly clear at a glance.

We're happy to have our Domo-kun T-shirts and warm hoodies back on the site for you, and J-List customers seem very happy to have them available again. We forgot to mention that our hooded sweatshirt now includes an XS size -- a first, since this color is usually not available in this size -- making Domo-kun a great item for customers needing youth sizes.

We love to bring you fun an interesting things from Japan, and today we've got Fresh Cuts, an outstanding collection of the most interesting indies music from Japan today, brimming with 16 tracks by bands like Baggy Chopper, Maria Gadet and Guitar Vader. It's in stock in San Diego and ready for your order.

Monday, March 05, 2007

All about trains and fuzzy blue rabbits from London, linguistic quirks of the Japanese language, and finding someone's "secret talent"

One thing I like about living in Japan is the rail culture here, so very different from the freeway- and automobile-based transportation system of Southern California. Trains have crisscrossed Japan since the first tracks were laid down in 1872, and you can go just about anywhere you want by rail, either a speedy bullet train between major cities or convenient local train when taking shorter trips. While you still need a car to really get around out in the inaka (boonies) where we live, residents of larger cities like Tokyo can easily get along without owning a car, and considering that a monthly parking space can cost up to $500 per month, that's probably a good thing. One of the most convenient train lines in Tokyo is the Yama-no-te loop line, which circles all of Tokyo and provides an easy way to get to most locations, as well as a fun drinking game for college students: get off at one stop, drink, get on the next train and go one station down, drink some more, repeat. There are plenty of advertisements in trains for various products, and every once in a while a company will buy every spot of advertising in a Yama-no-te train when it really wants to get its message across. The other day I got inside a train and was amazed to see pictures of Brits wearing cute plush rabbit ears, with the slogan "Go! London" everywhere, designed to make Japanese tourists think about taking a vacation there. I'm certain the advertising campaign succeeded in making Japanese feel all warm and fuzzy about Londoners.

Train advert for London

One of the more interesting aspects of having bilingual kids is the conversations you can have with them about how they perceive their two languages. My kids grew up speaking Japanese primarily, but many trips to the U.S. and interaction with me kept their English skills up to speed. I like to ask them if they feel their personalities are different when switching from one language to the other, and seeing what insights they might have for me. The other day my son asked me what the difference between the words sutoraiku (strike, with a 'ku' sound on the end, ストライク) and sutoraiki (the same, this time with a 'ki' on the end, ストライキ) was. Japanese is quite impoverished phonetically, with just five vowels compared to the twelve vowel sounds we produce in English -- for example, the schwa or the unique way a New Yorker pronounces the first syllable of "coffee" -- and they sometimes split English words into chunks that are easier for them to digest. The words strike with a 'ku' sound on the end is the term Japanese use for a strike in baseball or bowling, but the word with a 'ki' on the end is a labor dispute, two very different concepts in the minds of the Japanese. Some other split words include mishin (a sewing machine) vs. mashin (any machine, mecha or robot); bureiki (what stops your car) vs. bureiku (what you take when you're tired); and one that I invariably mess up, garasu (glass, what your windows are made of) and gurasu (a glass that you drink out of).

Socially, Japan is a different place from the West, and human relationships often have more formality than they might in the States. Therefore it takes time to really get to know a Japanese person, and it's not uncommon to keep on discovering things along the way, even years later. One interesting aspect of Japanese relationships that pops up from time to time is kakushi-gei (ka-ku-shee-GEI、隠し芸), the "secret talent" that people will hide from everyone else, only to pull out suddenly for dramatic effect. Jun is the J-List employee who brings you delicious snacks and "wacky things from Japan." When he first started working here we took everyone out for Indian food to welcome him, and he showed us his secret talent of being able to eat curry and rice deftly with his hands like they do in India, a skill he'd picked up while traveling the Silk Road. Once I took DVD and Japan iTunes-card meister Tomo out to dinner at a Japanese curry restaurant but realized I didn't have enough money to cover his meal, so he ordered the 1300 gram Super Curry Plate, which you get free if you can eat three pounds of rice and curry within 20 minutes -- he did it with time to spare. Other J-List staff members have secret abilities, too, like Yasu, who can do a great Eddie Murphy impression in Japanese; super-packer Saori, who possesses vast knowledge of American punk bands; and our newest employee Asami, proficient in Brazilian martial arts.

Are you ready for White Day, on March 14th? This is the day when men who received a gift of chocolate on Valentine's Day give some sort of return gift -- okaeshi in Japanese -- to the wives, girlfriends, daughters and female co-workers who gave them something. It's pure marketing fluff, of course, but kind of fun, and companies are happy to take advantage of the event by thinking of ways to sell products. Even Apple gets into the spirit of White Day their Japan store page, by suggesting that men buy engraved iPods for their better halves as a way of saying "Thanks for the chocolate!"

We've got a big announcement for you all today, with the return of our Domo-kun T-shirts and hoodies to the site. As you probably know, Domo-kun is the incredibly cute official spokesmonster for NHK, Japan's public broadcast system (the initials stand for Nippon Hoso Kyokai in case it ever comes up in casual conversation). We've got our classic Domo-kun men's T-shirt, our stylish Fitted Tee for girls, and a super item for those in cold parts of the world, our super-warm Domo-kun hooded sweatshirt. Check out the great new Domo-kun items on the site now!

I don't know why, but Ueno Station, located in Northn Tokyo, is my favorite.

There's something really old about it, and you can feel the Taisho Era still present on every train platform.

Competition has actually come to Japan's cellphone world, and I'm happy to see it. Here KDDI's "au" company, the one I use, is taking aim at NTT Docomo with their twin spokeswomen, Yukie Nakama (who looks kind of creapy here) on the left, and Ryoko Shinohara (who sang the theme song to the Street Fighter II movie way back in 1994), in a nice Spring-themed ad series.

More pictures of the ads. They talk about something called the Republic of London Bunnies, which is so cute I think I'll stop reading the ad lest I give myself "cuteness poisoning."

They have cool dalmations in London?

Popping into a convenience store, where they're selling "White Day Guilt" to all men who haven't bought their White Day return gift yet.

"Gentle as the breeze, deep as the ocean, constant as the moon, mysterious LOVE." Thank you, Hello Kitty.