Saturday, March 17, 2007

How to sub-divide Japanese groups into "zoku" (tribes), all about Japanese rice, and what's that blue spot on Taro's butt?

Words always reflect the people that use them, and vice-versa. In American English our notions about individualism and not going with the flow no doubt color the language we use in subtle ways, and Japan's language is similarly affected by its culture. Japan is a country where 80% or more of the people feel a strong need to consider themselves part of the Middle Class and where the word futsuu (foo-TSOO), meaning "normal" or "the same as everyone else," never carries a negative connotation. One interesting way of organizing people into sub-groups is the term zoku (族), translatable as "family" or "tribe," a tongue- in-cheek way of dividing the population up into quasi-anthropological categories. One of the most famous of these sub-groups are the otaku-zoku, the species of human that surrounds himself with manga, anime and pop culture from Japan -- we don't know anyone like that, do we? The poshest address in Tokyo is Roppongi Hills, a high-rise mini-city in Tokyo, and the fashionable people who can afford to live there are known as Hills-zoku. Often the word is used to give a name to a new social trend, such as hotaru-zoku, the "firefly tribe" of males whose wives have forbidden them from smoking in the home, forcing them out onto the veranda at night where their cigarette tips dance like fireflies. Some other sub-species of Japanese are mansion-zoku, people who live in high-rise apartments, oddly referred to as mansions; neko-zoku, those who like their cats way too much; and keitai-zoku, people obsessed with their cell phones all the time. Which zoku are you?

Rice is the staple of every Japanese household, the most important food in the country since cultivation began back in the Yayoi Period (300 B.C. ~ 250 A.D.). Eaten with three meals a day in many households, rice is such a big part of food culture here that the most common word for rice, "gohan," also refers to any food or meal. To prepare Japanese-style rice, you must wash it for several minutes to remove the edible white powder it's packed in, then put it in your electric rice cooker and press the button -- very convenient. The old U.S. commercials for Uncle Ben's Rice boasted that the grains won't ever stick together, but Japanese rice is supposed to be sticky enough so that you could use it to stick stamps on letters instead of licking them. Being the basis for Japanese civilization, rice is almost considered holy, and mothers tell children to eat all their rice because there are 88 gods in each grain who will get angry if rice is wasted. One the great mysteries of Japan is why virtually every woman seems to suffer from chronic constipation. The answer of course is that they eat too much rice, a natural cure for soft stools, but trying to get Japanese to listen to such a suggestion is just impossible.

I love Japanese public baths (sento) and hot springs (onsen, pronounced own-sen), and take my kids every week -- sometimes twice. Public baths hail back from the Edo era when people didn't have private baths in their homes, and had to go to community facilities to get clean. Hot springs have a long history in Japan, and popular onsen towns like Kusatsu or Beppu have been around for more than 1300 years. Once, when my son was younger and we were in an onsen together, he took me aside and asked me why a little boy playing in one of the baths had a blue bruise on his rear end. This is the famous Mongolian Spot (mokohan in Japanese, meaning "the Old Spot of Mongol"), a blue bruise-like spot which is found on Chinese, Japanese and Mongolian children, including my own kids when they were young. (See link here -- um, it is okay to link to something like this, right? ^_^) The spots go away when the children reach age five or so. In Japanese, the word for someone who is still a wet-behind-the-ears greenhorn is ao ni-sai ("still blue 2-year-old"), which is probably related to this spot.

J-List has been involved in licensing great "doujin" CG artwork and publishing it in CD-ROM format for years, and today we're happy to announce that the Borderline Collection vol. 2 & 3 are available again as Internet Downloads. The breathtakingly beautiful creations of illustrator Sakaki Naomoto (who incidentally designed the J-List logo girl), these two collections are filled with great images for fans and collectors. Check them out now!

So, I'm taking the kids to Mahatma, the Indian restaurant that I blog about from time to time. I took my wife here on our first date. We're were going for some of this...

Or maybe some of this, a plate of tandoori chicken, which my son loves more than anything. On the way there I joked with the kids if they wanted to go to Mahatma or to McDonald's instead, which is very amusing since who would go to McDonald's when they could have this instead?

Then we get to our table, and apparently some funny Indian person has decided to bring a menu from a McDonald's in India, just to play with our minds.

I really have no idea what the differences would be. No beef or pork, right? So I guess India is a lame place to be a sheep.

Like most Americans, I get my knowledge of India from the Simpsons episode where Apu gets married. Just kidding!

People who are interesated in Mother Theresa should hunt down Penn and Teller's episode where they strip away some of her halo. It's quite an eye-opener. Unfortunately doesn't look like it's up on Youtube or anything.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

How Cup Ramen became a part of our food culture, a new trend in vending machines, and my thoughts on the enigma of the "Japanese Female"

You may have seen that Momofuku Ando, the Father of Instant Ramen, died recently. Momofuku, whose name meant "one hundred happiness," was born in Taiwan and emigrated to Japan after the end of World War II. Seeing shivering customers waiting in line to buy ramen noodles, he got the idea for ramen that could be made easily at home, and started various experiments with pre-cooked noodles that eventually resulted in Chikin (sic) Ramen, released by his company Nisshin in 1958. He didn't stop there, though: he revolutionized the noodle industry again in 1972 by inventing Cup Noodle, the first ramen in a Styrofoam cup. Initial sales were slow until the Asama Resort Hostage Incident, when members of the Japan Red Army fled from police and took a woman hostage in a resort home in Karuizawa. When the country tuned in to watch the drama unfold on TV, they saw images of policemen standing in the cold eating Cup Noodle, and sales skyrocketed. (Hayao Miyazaki made use of this image with Detective Zenigata, too.) But not every product Momofuku made turned out to be a good idea. In the 1970s Nisshin rolled out a line of instant rice called Cup Rice, but it failed because of the special place hand-washed white rice has in Japanese households. Momofuku was a smart businessman who said, "I'm not selling noodles. I'm providing more free time to my customers." He passed away at the age of 96, still healthy and possessing all of his teeth. His secret of life? Eat instant ramen every day, and also eat a fresh sardine, head, bones and all, for the calcium.

The Japanese are nothing if not efficient, and what could be more efficient than a vending machine that works 24 hours a day and never needs health care? You can buy most anything in a vending machine in Japan, from hot canned coffee and creamed corn soup to film to tobacco and even beer -- there's a slot to stick your drivers' license into to verify your age. Near my house, there's a machine that sells 2-kg bags of rice in case you run out on short notice, and Tokyo's Akihabara region is famous for canned "oden" (oh-DEN), a traditional food that includes boiled squid, radish (daikon), pressed fish (chikuwa), and eggs. Since vending machines are so ubiquitous here -- there is one for every 23 Japanese -- manufacturers have to keep on their toes and introduce new features that will delight their customers. One company has done just that, creating a large vending machine that dispenses a variety of drinks from Coke to green tea to a frothing cappuccino. A TV screen shows you exactly what's happening to your drink inside the complex machine, and it's positively mesmerizing to watch the metal arm pick up a cup and move it to the steamed milk dispenser, wait for the espresso to drop, screw on a lid for you, then place your drink on the serving tray.

If I were to wake up someday and find that I'd suddenly become immortal, perhaps I'd have enough time to write a book on the subject of Homo Sapiens Sapiens Japanus Feminas, that of the Japanese female. In the fifteen years I've lived in Japan, I've known quite a lot of Japanese females, including my wife, various ESL students, friends and a few girlfriends (not in that order), yet I'd be lying if I said that they were anything but a mystery to me. A primary characteristic of Japanese women is that they generally live by the mantra chanto suru, meaning "do everything properly, the way it's supposed to be done," and you can see this reflected in many ways. Japanese females are very organized and are apt to suddenly pull out daily calendar books and schedule dates weeks or months in advance. They're also very meticulous when it comes to money, and it can be entertaining to watch two or more Japanese females eat at a restaurant then spend five minutes calculating who should pay for what down to the last yen. If taking a trip, try to have a Japanese woman plan it for you and everything will go much more smoothly, something I learned when we took our vacation to Guam last year. Many Japanese females have a highly refined sense of kawaii, or cuteness, whether it's decorating their room in Hello Kitty or referring to themselves in the third person to create a mysterious yet "coquettish" image. Judging from the success of our wacky kanji T-shirt that says "Now Accepting Applications for a Japanese Girlfriend," I'm not the only one fascinated by the enigma of Japanese women. We hope that J-List can help you understand these wonderful creatures a little better.

In addition to our world-famous wacky Japanese T-shirts, J-List also makes hooded sweatshirts that are incredibly soft and warm, just the thing to have around in the chillier months. Today we're happy to announce the return of the popular Caroline Blue Totoro Hoodie, which had been taken out of circulation while we searched for a new company to supply us with the uniquely colored blanks. Like all our other hooded sweatshirts, these Totoro hoodies are the best money can buy, made with extra-soft 80-20 blends that will stay soft through many washings, far superior to the 50-50 blends at other companies. All T-shirts and hoodies are printed in the USA by our expert staff in San Diego, and of course all sizes are full U.S. sizes. Why not browse our selection of hoodies for yourself or someone you know who would love to be wrapped in a warm kanji message?

Monday, March 12, 2007

All about Mt. Fuji, how taking responsibility can lead to cleaner bathrooms, and thoughts on bathing and how the brain works

You can't think of Japan without also thinking of the country's tallest and most famous mountain, Mt. Fuji. An active volcano 12,388 ft (3,776 meters) high that rises gracefully from the prefectures of Shizuoka and Yamanashi, Mt. Fuji is an incredibly beautiful image of Japan. In Japanese its name is Fuji-san, with 'san' being the correct pronunciation for the character for mountain, although it's read 'yama' in other situations according to a secret code that foreigners can never seem to figure out. Along with taking pictures of beer vending machines and making that first pilgrimage to Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pagoda of Kyoto, climbing Mt. Fuji is a popular activity among visitors to Japan, and if you're ever planning to be here during the climbing season (July 1 to August 31), you should give it a try. You start from the 5th level, the highest point that vehicles are allowed on the mountain, and take one of three paths up to the topmost 10th level. As you ascend, you go rapidly from the middle of summer to the middle of winter, so you have to have lots of extra clothes with you to put on as the temperature drops. You continue to climb, passing the various stations along the way and rasping as the air gets thinner and thinner. When I did my ascent, I slept for a few hours at one of the little inns that are at each station, and woke up at 4 am to finish the rest of the climb and arrive at the top at dawn. It was, of course, a breathtaking experience. Traditionally mountains are associated with Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, and Mt. Fuji has been considered a holy place for thousands of years.

Today my wife and I ate at a restaurant that serves my favorite food, Hamburg Doria, which is a hamburger (Salisbury) steaks baked inside a rice and white sauce casserole. (Aside: one of the more bizarre aspects of Japan is that hamburger meat and a frankfurter without a bun are called hamburg and frankfurt respectively.) I used the bathroom and was pleasantly surprised to find it very clean. I saw the reason for this immediately: there was a clipboard hung by the door with the name of the employee in charge of cleaning, with an indication of when the room had last been checked along with his initials. It was an example of the Japanese word sekinin (seh-ki-NIN), meaning taking responsibility for something: by making sure that not only the manager but the customers see how often good old Negishi-san has cleaned the bathroom, the management could ensure that he'd do his darnedest to make everything was done right. I've seen this system used in other places, too, for example in the Gainax Phone Club I belong to, which lets me get little Flash animations from Gainax anime shows for my phone, such as one of Asuka saying "Anta baka?!" to me when I go to make a call. Each section of the club's site displays the name of the Gainax employee responsible for creating interesting content, which no doubt plays a role in making sure each employee does his best. I'd have to say that taking responsibility is something the Japanese are very good at.

Being so busy with J-List, it seems I never seem to have enough time to unwind in the evenings. Fortunately, bathing is a big part of daily life here, and by taking a good book into the bath with me I can get clean and get my reading done at the same time, although it makes for some funny looks in the public bath. I'm currently working on a fascinating book by Carl Sagan in which he explores the brain and how it evolved. In a chapter about how memory works, he discusses how its possible to wake up after a dream so vivid we're sure we'll be able to remember in the morning, yet due to the way that our brains are wired, the memory of the dream invariably slips away from us, unless we write it down to talk about it with someone. I can certainly say that studying a foreign language like Japanese enables you to discover of these interesting limitations of the brain, too. For example, merely thinking about a kanji character or a vocabulary word won't force it to be stored in longer-term memory. To internalize new information you need to attack it from several directions, perhaps by recalling the information from flashcards or a system like the "Zebra Check Set" study system, writing example sentences, or the hands-down best way to never forget a new word or grammatical point: try to use it in casual conversation but fail miserably, embarrassing yourself in the process. It's not fun, but at least you'll never forget that word.

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Here's the Hamburg Doria. This is at a restaurant called Flying Garden.

Hmm, can you feel the heat of the ceramic bowl as the rice bakes to the sides? Juwa juwa juwa... (that's the sound of the meat still cooking)

Here's the clipboard in the bathroom. Negishi-san is really doing a great job.

Confusing sign. It doesn't have anything to do with men, or soul, or Seoul, or Menthol. The Japanese title translates as "Soul of Noodles" (men in Japanese).