Friday, March 23, 2007

What we can learn about culture and Star Wars from Japanese comedians, some reverse sexual discrimination, and all about "What is your Hobby?"

"What is your hobby?" This is one of the first phrases of English conversation that Japanese students learn, along with "What is your name?" "Where are you from?" and "What is your blood type?" My students at the time were aged 18-20, that period when you're sure you've had all of life's major experiences and don't need to form any new opinions, and some regular responses included Mayumi's stated love of doraibu (going driving with friends), Misako's constant talk about baito (working a part-time job, from the German word arbeit), or good old Kiyoko, who always replied "going shopping with my mother." Because I'm an emotional, idealistic American, I always did my best to get the students to give more information to the class about what really excited them, to get them to do more with their precious youth than they were doing. But except for a few students who had a particular passion for something they could share with the class -- the Beatles, American pro wrestlers, traveling around Japan taking pictures of trains -- getting my Japanese students to be excited about anything was always a challenge.

Speaking of hobbies, one of mine is comparing the cultures of Japan and the U.S., in case you haven't guessed, and sometimes you don't need to look any farther than the people who make us laugh, comedians. While most famous comedians in the U.S. come from the stand-up circuit or through the hallowed gates of Saturday Night Live, comedy in Japan is a little different. One form of traditional Japanese comedy that's been around for centuries is rakugo, literally "fallen words," which involves a lone comedian sitting Japanese- style on a zabuton cushion located very near the audience. The interesting thing about this style of performance is that, rather than using new comedy material, the monologue that the comedian tells is one of an already established library of a hundred or so such humorous stories, although a good rakugo-ka will add his own unique touches. There's a TV show where rakugo comedians do battle to see who is the funniest, and when they get a laugh they get another cushion, so that by the end the winner is sitting on a tower of them. (And in fact, a way of saying "that was funny" is Zabuton, ichi mai, or "I'll give you one zabuton cushion for that.") Another pillar of Japan's comedy world is manzai, humor involving a two-man team that includes a dim-witted boke (boh-KAY, meaning fool) and his sharp-tongued tsukkomi (tsu-KOH-mi, meaning straight foil) sidekick, who act out complex comic sketches together. Manzai has been popular throughout the 20th century and has had a great influence on many areas -- for example, the characters of C-3P0 and R2-D2 indirectly owe their existence to this humorous tradition, via the films of Kurosawa. The most popular manzai team in Japan today is Bakusho Mondai, who are regular guests on news programs where they bring their witty commentary to bear on the events of the past week. If you've happened to see the Japanese version of Apple's "Get a Mac" ads, the duo playing the Mac and PC are two halves of a manzai comedy pair. (We have an English book of rakugo monologues on the site today if you're interested.)

Normally when you think of a subject like sexual discrimination you think of women not being offered the chance to do what they want on an equal footing with males, but I had a little lesson in reverse discrimination last night. My wife, mother-in-law and our two kids were heading to Malaysia for a week to visit a family friend, leaving me home alone -- the Holy Grail for any married man, since I can walk around the house in my underwear, put my feet on the table, and drink out of the milk carton with impunity. Before she could leave, though, my wife was compelled to prepare a week's worth of meals for me, as if my male-ness made me totally unable to fend for myself in for seven days, like some comedy version of a husband from the 1950s. And that, I realized, is one aspect of the relationships between men and women in Japan, a kind of yin-yang (to bring a sufficiently Asian image to my theory) in which the man is responsible being the "great black pillar" (daikoku-bashira) that holds up the household, while the woman does her part to ensure the happiness of the family from the inside. Sounds overly simplified to put it like that, I know, but from within the context of living in Japan, it really works well.

Today we've not one, not two but three wacky new Japanese T-shirts for you on the site. The Japanese are an incredibly expressive people, and they can take something as bland as ASCII letters or generic hiragana and katakana characters and turn them into incredibly expressive images. We've got three new limited-run T-shirts featuring popular emoji ("emotional characters") that capture the heart and soul of the Japanese BBS 2ch and look really cool at the same time. See them on the site now!

J-List carries region-free DVD players that make it child's play to enjoy region-encoded DVDs from Japan, Europe and other countries. Our players are specially manufactured to ignore the pesky region codes that try to keep you from watching the discs you want to enjoy, and are fully compatible with DVDs from all regions, including PAL and RCE discs. Even better, they're loaded with features, like the ability to play DIVX/AVI files burned onto DVD-R media. We've lowered the price on our popular RJ-200 progressive scan/surround sound DVD player, making it even easier to snap up one of these half-height demons and watch any DVD you like.

I see I forgot to post pictures of the hidden micro brewery in the mountains of Gunma. Well, here you go. Here are the taps.

Good roaring Dwarven fires, too.

In general, any time I get the chance to eat wood-fired pizza, I take it.

Like all Japanese breweries, there were three types, very blonde, medium and very fruity, and very dark/stout. I found the middle path to be the most delicious.

This is what the Japanese call a "Margherita" Pizza.

I just love the construction of this place, all wood, with huge pillars of wood visible inside. It was so unexpected to find such a good place in a town with a winter population of a few hundred.

I brought some of these back for my father in law, although I know he won't like them. I'll just have to help him drink them ^_^

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The man who created the Yamato theme song, all about the traditional game Karuta, and thoughts on corn soup

I've written before about how the meinichi (命日), the anniversary of a person's death, is very important in a Buddhist country like Japan, and once a person has passed on those left behind will remember him or her on this day. Today happens to be the meinichi of Hiroshi Miyagawa, a person who's had no small impact on Japan's animation industry, as well as myself. He was the composer who wrote the music for Space Cruiser Yamato, shown in the U.S. as Star Blazers, essentially the first anime series associated with the now-familiar concepts of dramatic, sequential stories with problems that are resolved and multi-faceted characters who die, fall in love and generally act like real people. Several years before John Williams gave us the music for Star Wars, Maestro Miyagawa showed the world what could be achieved with extremely melodramatic and high-quality music even in something as mundane as an animated series. His single most famous creation was the Yamato theme song, which he composed after being asked by Producer Nishizaki to envision "an iron ballad," and the song is regularly performed by marching bands from the Maritime Self-Defense Forces to my daughter's 4th grade class. The Yamato franchise, with its Gamilon-planet-bombs-as-allegory-to-World-War-II themes, was incredibly campy, but for many it was a first wonderful bridge to Japan.

If you love "corn potage," then get to Japan as fast as you can, since people here just can't get enough of creamed corn soup. Right now I'm sitting in Steak House Miya, a Japanese restaurant that serves both regular and "hamburg" steak, famous for a tangy daikon sauce that the server pours over your sizzling plate, then a napkin is draped over the whole thing to keep it from burning you as the sauce cooks into the meat. Beside my steak and plate of rice is a bowl of corn soup with corn flakes sprinkled on top, which tastes good enough, I guess. As an American, when I think of soup I think of the Campbell's classics like chicken noodle, tomato, and vegetable beef, but these are as alien here in Japan as Green Tea Butterscotch and Rose Flavored Gum are in most parts of the world. Types of soup that the Japanese prefer instead include creamed pumpkin or carrot soups, healthy wakame (seaweed) or miso soup, or if at an Italian restaurant, perhaps some minestrone. When you get sick in the U.S., most people think of eating chicken soup, but in Japan the most common remedies are drinking a tea with ginger in it or swallowing down a raw egg in sake -- yum.

Japanese Karta game

I wrote last time about the traditional Japanese card game karuta, which gets its name from the Portuguese but is based on games played in the Imperial Court in ancient Kyoto. Karuta consists of two decks of cards, one featuring hiragana characters and another with poems or phrases that correspond to cards in the first deck. Two players scatter the hiragana cards on the floor randomly and assume a position that allows them to grab cards easily, then a third person starts reading the poems one by one. The most famous karuta game is the Hyakunin Isshu, which features poetry about one hundred historical figures in short tanka form. As kids hear one of the 1300-year-old poems -- perhaps the one about the poet Ki no Tomonori, which goes "In the peaceful light/Of the ever-shining sun/In the days of spring/Why do the cherry's new-blown blooms/Scatter like restless thoughts?" -- they grab the card that corresponds with that phrase before their opponent can find it, and whoever gets the most cards wins. Another popular variation played in our prefecture is Jomo Karuta, which substitutes poems about the beauty of Gunma, from the fiery Mt. Asama to the bustling hot springs resort at Ikaho. Playing karuta is good on many levels, since it teaches children to read, is competitive and fun to play, and it also instills them with a link to the past that I think Americans can't easily comprehend. It can be used to teach many things, too. For example, my daughter is learning the flute, and her teacher cleverly makes the kids play a version of karuta that teaches them musical terms, like da capo and staccato.

J-List has been involved with licensing and translating Japan's amazing PC dating-sim games for years, and we've built a great lineup of really amazing story- and character-centric games for bishoujo gaming fans that allow you to take your relationship with Japan to a whole new place. Our games are available in shrink-wrapped CD-ROM packages as well as Internet Download Editions, and there are titles for every taste, from cat girls to maids and highly evolved dramatic stories and more. We're happy to announce that we've completed our initial testing with Microsoft's new Windows Vista operating system (32-bit), and are happy to announce that all our games are compatible with the new platform. So whether you're using Vista now or plan to in the future, our great dating-sim games will be compatible.

Remember that J-List carries the extremely high-end school uniforms for guys and girls made by Matsukameya of Nagoya, a company with an outstanding reputation in Japan. Our sailor uniforms are all custom made to your exact size specifications and available in many styles, making it easy for you to have the coolest costume for the summer anime conventions. We also carry a really cool item: authentic Japanese school bags, the kind high school girls carry to school, made of high quality materials and loaded with pockets to hold all your stuff.

Monday, March 19, 2007

An expected bit of Irish in Japan, thoughts on Japan's slow-changing educational system, and all about the concept of "kakko ii"

Yesterday was St. Patrick's Day, a celebration of all things Irish in the U.S. and, presumeably, Ireland. As you might imagine, there isn't a lot of awareness of this day in a place like Japan, which knows nothing of shamrocks or leprechauns or pots of gold buried at the end of the rainbow. However, we managed to have our own little Irish Experience nevertheless. While taking our customary weekend drive up the mountains around the resort town of Karuizawa, we came across an interesting-looking restaurant that served wood-fired pizza and home-brewed beer, a rarity in a country that favors large, easily-taxable industries. Among the beers they offered was an authentic Irish Stout, and I was so shocked at the concept of drinking a rare and delicious brew on a mountain in an extremely rural corner of Japan that I had to have three of them. One thing you can say about Japan is, you never know what it's got in store for you next.

The subject of Japan's compulsory educational system is a complex and interesting one. Officially begun as part of the modernization program of the 1870s, Japan's schools are responsible for teaching young people everything they need to function in life, from reading and writing of kanji to math and science to social skills suitable for Japan's group-oriented culture and being able to say "Fine thanks, and you?" when you ask them how they are in English (a very important skill, to be sure). Public schools are extremely conservative and resistant to change, and it's amazing how much is the same at my daughter's elementary school compared with when her mother went there 25 years ago...or her grandmother, who attended the same school 50 years ago. This is good on the one hand because it creates a continuum of experiences that crosses generations, such as playing the Japanese educational game "Karuta" that teaches respect for local culture -- even something like Japanese school lunches have cultural threads that we foreigners can never comprehend. On the other hand, Japanese public schools seem trapped in a time-warp without any significant plan for the changes students will face this century, including fierce competition from every country in Asia. I sometimes wonder if Japan's educational system can go on changing so little.

Japan can be a very style-oriented place at times, and it seems that everyone is concerned about looking good. The universal word for "cool" in Japanese is kakko ii (KAH-koe ee, lit. "good style"), while the opposite is kakko warui (KAH-koe wa-roo-EE, "bad style," e.g. dorky). Another word that describes an absence of coolness is dasai (dah-SAI, out of fashion, uncool, n00b), which supposedly started out as a derogatory word for people from half-rural, half-urban Saitama Prefecture, just north of Tokyo, essentially to Japan's capital what Orange County is to Los Angeles. Many Japanese also have a great appreciation for what's known as dasa-kakko ii, or something that's both lame and cool at the same time, or perhaps cool specifically because it's out of sync with current mores. Some examples of dasa-kakko ii might include the hair styles or fashions from the 1970s, that scene from Mobile Suit Gundam when Amuro sits in the cockpit desperately reading through the manual as he trying to find the mecha's weapons, the movie Willow, anything featuring Vin Diesel, and the artist formerly and currently known as Prince.

Remember that J-List carries cool computer peripheral and iPod products by Japan's leading company, Elecom. From stylin' USB computer mice to their trademark katakana mouse pads and keyboards to stylish speakers for your iPod, Mac or PC, Elecom has great stuff for you. We also carry the bizarre-but-cute Mogmo Kun, a push little monster that "eats" your USB flash drive or similar shaped device in order to protect it. So cute! All products are fully compatible with computers and iPod products around the world.