Saturday, March 31, 2007

The most-quoted phrase by pop Japanologists, the reason for Japanese innovation, and stupid Japanese money tricks

No consideration of Japan is complete without the often-quoted-by-gaijin- who-are-experts-on-Japan phrase deru kui wa utareru (DE-ru KOO-ee wa oo-TAH-reh-ru), which translates as "the nail that sticks up will be hammered down." It describes the tendency of Japan, especially the educational system here, to "hammer down" individuals that don't fit in so that they're brought in line with everyone else. While a classroom full of similar students would probably be easy for a teacher to manage, the idea that students with special talents -- a child gifted in music or math -- might be forced to "conform" to the larger group offends my American idealism. My first employer in Japan had a daughter who was born in the U.S. and grew up speaking mostly English before returning to Japan, but by the time she'd finished three years of Japanese high school, various social pressures (as well as some issues unique to the girl, no doubt) made her actively pretend to not understand English, even though I knew better. The Japanese are quite aware that their country isn't very good at handling special cases, and in some instances a family with an exceptional child will emigrate to a country where the differences can be appreciated and encouraged. The great irony is that many of the most successful people in Japan have violated this rule and stood up as proud as any nail ever did, such as Softbank president Masatoshi Son, cybermall Rakuten founder Hiroshi Mikitani, and flamboyant former professional centerfielder Shinjo. The man who founded Honda stood out, too: as a boy, he wanted to learn how to swim, so he got the idea of swallowing small fish whole and jumping in the water while it was still flapping around inside his stomach.

Deru Kui wa Utareru

The Japanese are very good at taking an idea and improving on it, and the entire history of modern Japan involves observing the nations of Europe and the U.S. and seeing what they could adopt and make better. This is known as wakon yosai or "Japanese Spirit, Western Know-How," a phrase that was coined after the Meiji Restoration, meaning that Japan should combine the technology of the West with that "extra something" (which the Japanese insist on calling "plus alpha") that only Japan can provide. My first introduction with Japanese innovation upon arriving here was in one of the most uninteresting places imaginable, the toilet. Most Japanese toilets in homes have a little sink on the top that lets you wash your hands with clean water as it flows into the tank after you flush -- very logical in a country that's both starved for elbow room and very conscious about cleanliness. One of the fun things of living in Japan is keeping mental count of the little innovations there are around me, from vertical parking "elevators" for your car to single-serving drip coffee that sits over your cup to cola vending machines that are only a few centimeters thicker than the length of a can so that they can be placed along the narrow roads in Tokyo. Oh, and those dreamy massage chairs.

There's a wacky thing that Japanese do to money: fold a 1000 yen bill so that 19th century novelist Souseki Natsume (or whoever -- it works with just about any bill) makes sad or happy faces, depending on which way you look at it. I'll teach you how it's done so you can amaze your friends with this great Japanese trick. First, take a bill and make an outward fold where each of his eyes are. Make an inward fold through the middle of his face, so that his eyes are higher than his nose (like little mountains). If you look at the bill from above, the face will look sad; from below, and he'll look happy. Virtually all Japanese known this silly trick, and would probably be surprised if any non-Japanese knew it. Here is the result:

Deru Kui wa Utareru

Remember that our newest PC dating-sim game, YUME MIRU KUSURI :: A Drug That Makes You Dream, has gone "Golden Master" and will be on its way to the duplicators soon. We've got some other happy announcements for H-game fans, too. First, we've lowered the price of Yin-Yang! X-Change Alternate by $10, so if you haven't picked up this extremely popular title yet, you have a great excuse to do so now. Then, two of our popular game releases are now available in a new Internet Download Edition: the gorgeous Legend of Fairies and Fairy Nights, fully translated into English and compatible with Window as well as Mac (OS 9/X).

The summer conventions are not too far off. Have you ordered your Matsukameya high school uniform yet? We're starting our convention lineup earlier than normal this year by attending the Star Wars Celebration IV convention in Los Angeles May 24-28. This is only the fourth official Star Wars convention ever held, and my first. It'll be great to rub elbows with Star Wars fans from all over, and we'll have lots of fun and interesting products from Japan for you. So if you can make it to the show, be sure and look for us! See this page for info on the show.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A magic Japanese phrase for you, home ownership Japan-style, and Japan as "producer heaven"

Last time I mentioned the magic words that may be responsible for much of the wa or harmony that Japan is famous for. The phrase is shikata ga nai (sh-kah-tah ga NAH-ee), or in its more common form sho ga nai, which both translate as "it can't be helped" or "I can't do anything about that," and its used in a wide variety of situations. Whether it's the government quietly hinting that a European-style VAT may be in Japan's future or Section Chief Tanaka's flat rejection of your latest suggestion at work, the phrase allows Japanese to accept what they cannot change and shrug off stress that would otherwise build up inside them. The phrase can also be seen on our wacky T-shirt and hat for girls, "I like what I like, so get off my back!" which sums up a lot of my own life. From my idealistic American point of view, it seems that the phrase is trotted out a little too quickly when there's some social injustice or other wrong that needs righting, be it racism or sexism or many other ism's out there, but of course there are things that we can't change in the world and it's very practical of the Japanese to be open about this fact. The phrase is also used to cheer someone up after sickness, heartbreak or other sadness. We had a sho ga nai event this morning when our family cat, Mi-chan (short for "mix" since her fur is black and white), was hit by a car and killed. My daughter's going to be devastated when she gets back from Malaysia, and I'm sure my (very Buddhist) wife will bring up the idea of migawari, or an animal dying to take bad luck away from the family.

A friend of mine is taking a big step in his life, buying a plot of land and hiring a builder to build a house on it for him. Unlike in the U.S., where you usually buy an existing house through a realtor, it's much more common in Japan to buy land and plan your own home from scratch. The Japanese are not fans of "used" homes that someone else has already lived in, though, so if the land you're buying happens to have an older home already on it, it's a given that it will be torn down and replaced. Home construction is a huge business here, and when my friend was looking for a company to build his home he had many options, from large firms like Sekisui that uses baseball star Ichiro for their TV commercials to Habel House, famous for steel-framed homes that are so strong you could keep a pet elephant on the second floor. Japanese companies tend to engage in businesses that might seem a little off-target to some, and my friend could have chosen homes built by Panasonic (PanaHome), Toyota Home (they build your house in parts on the same manufacturing lines as their cars then truck the pieces in), or TBS Home, the house-building arm of the Tokyo Broadcasting Station, I kid you not. He could also have done what many Japanese families are doing and get an "import home," basically a pre-designed kit that's assembled in Canada or Sweden and shipped over, then put together by a local contracting company. In the end he went with a company with the charming name of Wish Home that specializes in building homes of brick. Of course, buildings made of brick are not allowed in earthquake-prone Japan, so the house itself is built so that the structure is actually supported by the internal 2x4 frame, for safety.

Although Japan is a capitalist country with a strong market economy cast in the mold of the U.S. and England, there are plenty of differences. One of the major themes of economics in Japan is that it tends to be a "supplier heaven" for companies that manufacture products and provide services, with so much power accumulated into the hands of large companies that it seems a wonder that things can function at all. In general, sellers of products benefit from stricter pricing structures and are able to capture a greater percent of the final purchase price than in any other country. At the rural liquor store my wife's parents run, our markup for beer and tobacco is a piddling 5%, barely enough to pay the electricity in the shop, but this doesn't matter since a shop without beer and cigarettes wouldn't get many customers, so my parents treat them as loss leaders. Price fixing is illegal here, but there's a whole slew of product categories such as books and CDs that are allowed to be sold at manufacturer-specified prices, which is a boon for producers wanting to create stable markets with none of that pesky competition. If you own an apartment building in Japan you've got it made thanks to the "key money" system that usually requires a tenant to pre-pay six months of rent when they move in, which includes "thank you money" and a deposit to the owner as well as to the agent that found the apartment for you, which by the way must be paid every two years. The funny thing about top-heavy supplier-centric economies is that they're always changing, and just as the open field of ideas called the Internet has brought a lot of good in the U.S. and Europe, the fact that change will come to Japan too is, well, sho ga nai.

It gives us great pleasure to announce that our upcoming game, YUME MIRU KUSURI :: A Drug That Makes You Dream, has gone "golden master" and will soon be on its way to the duplicators. This is a really outstanding game set in a totally modern version of Japan in which you play a Japanese student struggling with many of the same problems that real students deal with every day. Your life is about to be turned upside down by three beautiful girls: the grown-up Mizuki who's terrified of her own weakness, the poor transfer student Aeka, and the bizarre cat girl Nekoko. As you interact with these characters and affect each others' lives you can find love, purpose and much more. A super game with dramatic themes, dreamy art and fascinating characters. We hope you're preorder your copy now!

Remember that J-List carries a great for fans of JPOP, the iTunes Japan Music Cards, which are the only way to buy music from the iTMS unless you happen to have a credit card registered inside Japan. Looking for the Doraemon theme song? Want to browse the latest singles by Every Little Thing? Or browse the Japan Hip Hop scene for songs you like the sound of? It's all very easy to do from any Mac or PC running iTunes. The cards come in 1500 and 5000 yen denominations, and are super-easy to use: just log out of your current iTunes account, select the Japan store, click the link to enter an iTMS card number, and you can set up a new account for your Japanese music. You don't even have to muck with Japanese characters in the iTunes application, since it will work

I'm feeling sad about Mi-chan so I'll show you some pictures. This is our cat, taken a few days before she ran got hit by a car.

Animals totally have personalities, and even though it looks like she hated being put in this doll house by my daughter, she was always happy to "gaman" (put up with) anything my daughter wanted to do. A real kid's cat.

This is Mi-chan's brother, Ku-chan (from kuro, black). This dumb cat loved to climb inside people's cars and hid inside a moving can that brought some furniture to us, then got carted off. We *hope* he's alive somewhere but aren't sure.

Mi-chan as a baby, back when we could play Kitten Stick-Ons©.

I joke when I post about things like my wife saying "I'm glad we have pets around, they die in place of family members" but living in the context of a very Buddhist place like Japan, I start to believe it. And if believing it makes it actually work, I'd certainly give up a beloved pet over a family member. So if you died to save one of us from some bad fate, Mi-chan, you have our eternal thanks.

Monday, March 26, 2007

An Incredible Otaku Journey, Earthquakes can be Fun, and Weird Accounting Tricks in Japanese

I got a reminder that Japan is very much a part of the Pacific Ring of Fire yesterday when a 6.9 quake woke me up and gave me a good shake. At the time I was staying at our "mansion" (apartment) at the foot of Mt. Asama, one of the most potentially active volcanoes in Japan, and I quickly looked out the window to make sure the mountain hadn't decided to go all Mordor on us. Aside from jittery nerves, there was no damage where I was, although plenty of older homes collapsed close to the epicenter, and one poor woman was killed by a falling stone lantern, a very "zen" way to go, I guess. Learning to not jump at every little earthquake is all part of living in a place like Japan, and it goes hand-in-hand with developing a taste for seafood and tofu, learning to never pour your own beer, getting used to wearing slippers that are three sizes too small, and being at peace with confined spaces that would make a Space Shuttle astronaut claustrophobic.

Pretz from Onegai Twins

Over the weekend a friend and I went on the ultimate geeked-out road trip, traveling to Lake Kizaki in Nagano Prefecture, the setting for the two moe (mo-EH) anime series Please, Teacher! and Please, Twins! The first series is about a beautiful Pocky-eating alien who secretly marries one of the students at the local school, and the sequel is a dramatic love triangle between a boy and two girls that's complicated by the fact that one of the girls is the boy's long-lost twin sister, but none of them is sure which it is. (Twins is the better series if you have to pick just one -- besides being a really good story, it's got the best fan service ever seen. Wow, looks like it's all up on YouTube if you're curious and can stand the English dubbing.) Just about everything seen in the two shows is based on real places in the Lake Kizaki area, and otaku from all around Japan and the world make pilgrimages there, visiting their favorite landmarks and eating Pocky and Pretz, the two signature snacks from the shows. My wife snorted when she heard what we had planned, but no self-respecting Japanese female planning a trip to Europe would miss the chance to visit the Palace of Versailles to see the grandeur first introduced to them in the famous Rose of Versailles anime, or re-enact their favorite scenes from Roman Holiday in beautiful Rome, and my wife's been to both several times.

One aspect of running a business in Japan is developing language skills that I might otherwise never pick up. In addition to needing to be able to read "legalese" for signing licensing contracts and what not, I've had to learn the basic mechanics of accounting in Japanese, which is difficult since I don't understand it in English. As a general rule, legal institutions that work in the U.S. are also present in Japan, and if you have a concept in one country it will probably translate into something similar on the other end. Part of this comes from countries following the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles so that their laws can interoperate, but a lot of Japan's lock-step movement with the U.S. comes from a deeper tradition of generally following behind us in all things -- for example, Japan's version of our 401(k) is ingeniously named the "Japan 401(k)." I recently found one concept that exists in Japan which is quite different from the States. It's called gensen choshu and it means withholding income at the source, which is what happens when you get your paycheck with tax already taken out, but in Japan, taxes are pre- deducted in a wider range of situations. If we were to hire a programmer to do some work for us, we're required by law to pre-deduct his taxes when we pay him, hence for a $1000 job we'd pay him $850 and send the rest to the Tax Ministry in his name, presumably to keep the payment from going unreported. This is a minor inconvenience, but I was surprised to learn that investment income is also pre-deducted in the same way. So when my wife puts money in a CD at 1% interest (still considered a fairly good return in the bizarro world that is Japan), she actually only gets .85% from it, which means she's potentially losing up to a year of earnable interest on other investments she might make that year. I'm sure taxpayers would rise up and revolt over something like this in most countries, but sadly the Japanese mantra of sho ga nai ("it can't be helped") keeps people from demanding change.

J-List is proud to carry the Canon Wordtank, the electronic dictionary for serious students which I used myself for many years. Japan is a country that takes studying seriously, and the Wordtank is loaded with useful features to make learning a foreign language easy. Unlike virtually every other manufacturer, Canon's Wordtank line goes out of its way to be friendly to gaijin, with features like an English menu mode, the ability to look up single or groups of kanji on the screen (useful because it's common for a word you look up to be written with kanji students can't yet read), an English manual, and of course the ability to save words and kanji for later study. I also like the feature that shows you how to write kanji by animating the stroke order -- very handy. Just because the Wordtank is small doesn't mean it lacks brains -- inside its memory you can find 11 complete dictionaries. We've restocked the popular Wordtank G55 on the site now, ready for your immediate order!

The weather wasn't that good for a road trip, especially in a convertible, but we didn't care.

We drove quite far -- the trip was 500 km round trip, taking us through many beautiful rural mountains and highways.

After only getting lost a little, we eventually arrived at the lake.

It was easy to find all the landmarks thanks to the various otaku sites that document where everything is.

This is the Lawson from episode 1 where Miina talks with Maiku for the first time. The premise of the show is that Maiku (Mike), Miina and Karen are half Japanese since they've got blue eyes. Yet only two are related...

The fumikiri (train crossing) from the opening credits was the next stop in our wacky little journey.

Umino Kuchi Station is the veeeery rural train station that services the place, and the final scene of the series.

Here's the inside. It was eerie being here, since everything in the show was done with perfect accuracy. Kind of like how cool it would be to be allowed to walk around in the Bag End set that they built for Lord of the Rings, but a lot less so.

There was a mini-shrine put there by fans and a notebook where people wrote messages to each other at having come to this spot. Pictures, poems, people's emotions were all recorded.

Then we went to the Daily Yamazaki Store, which was the model for Herikawa Shoten, where the twins worked.

This is the nice lady who owned the place. Basically, after Please Teacher was such a success, a representative from Bandai came by one day and asked her if they could have permission to "shoot pictures of" her shop. She thought it was for a documentary and said okay. A year later, suddenly her shop has been transformed into Otaku Central, but she didn't seem to mind. She was happy to have an American she could talk with, since I guess most of the ones who venture by don't speak the language.

She had a map where people can write where they're from, write messages and everything.

There was only one thing left -- to located the house where the three lived. It turned out to be pathetically easy since there are only about 30 houses in this village.

I wanted to go talk with them and ask how they felt about being the most famous inaka house in all otakudom, but I didn't have the nerve.

Finally, we swung back to the playground, where I shot a picture of the sliding board. Then it was time to go home, back to reality, at least for a little while.