Friday, April 06, 2007

Thoughts on television in Japan, April and "newly harvested rice," and that cultural question, what color is the sun?

Television (which turns 80 today) in Japan can be quite entertaining, and sometimes its fun to sit back on the sofa and see what Japan's TV networks have for me. While there are some variety shows in which they do odd things like seeing how many seconds a sexy bikini idol can stay on a mechanical bull or submerge her body in protru- sion-inducing freezing water, these types of programs are in the minority. One show I caught the other day took a simpler approach: a camera crew started at one end of the Inokashira train line that runs from Shibuya to Kichijoji, famous for its large (for Tokyo) park and drinking area, and went to each station, introducing a unique business located in the area. These included a man selling refurbished American motorcycles from the 1930's, a Japanese couple who fell in love with the unique taste of Korean food found in Los Angeles' Korea Town and now operate a restaurant that aims to recreate that taste, and a store that sells nothing but mimikaki, those traditional Japanese "ear picks." Another staple of Japanese television takes several "talents" -- a catch-all word meaning any television personality -- and sends them off through the Japanese countryside, bathing in exotic hot springs and enjoying delicious meals at Japanese ryokan inns while the camera follows them from place to place. It's hard to understand, but watching this kind of "feel good" show can have a real calming effect on a person, and I'm sure a lot of other viewers here would agree with me.


It's April in Japan, and that means two things: beautiful sakura blooming everywhere and ichinen-sei (一年生、 first graders). April is the start of the Japanese school year, and throughout the country millions of parents will be watching with teary eyes through the video finder as little Taro or Hanako start Elementary School, with cherry blossoms falling all around them. Japan's "back to school" season is a busy one for mothers, who must rush to get all the school supplies for the new school year -- if you've noticed a lot of notebooks, pencil cases and erasers on J-List lately, you know it's because that's the season here. Mothers are going to get even busier, though: they're given a list of things they must hand-make for their kids to use, including a quilted bag to put art supplies in, a "shoes bag" (sic) for carrying shoes around inside the school, and a clean towel with the child's name sewn into it for daily desk-cleaning. In addition to being the start of school, April is when new employees officially enter the work force, and somewhere in Japan right now there are a few hundred new hires at a Company Entrance Ceremony enduring a long speech from the chairman. These new employees are often referred to as first-graders or shin-mai (新米, newly harvested rice).

What color is the sun? You might answer that it's yellow, or orange, or white. However, when asked this question, though, many Japanese are likely to answer "red." This seems to be a differences in cultural perception -- the red circle in the Japanese flag is called hi-no-maru or circle-of-the-sun -- and the color red does seem to have a special place in the hearts of the Japanese. Red is the color of celebration, something the Japanese imported from China, and when you attend a Japanese wedding you always leave with a bag of gifts which include sekihan, red rice that's cooked with beans in it. There are many words that incorporate the color in them, such as aka no tanin (a "red" or complete stranger), or one that took me a while to get used to, akachan (a baby), which comes from the supposed red coloring of a newborn infant, although I can't really see it. Japan's perception of color often causes confusion among foreigners, such as their use of the word "blue" to refer to the deep green of a forest and -- most confusingly -- for the color of a green traffic signal.

Karoshi means death from overwork, and it's a reality in Japan, where companies demand long hours of their employees. You don't have to live in Japan to be overworked, and we've got a great new Japanese T-shirt that shows a famous symbol of tired "salarymen" returning home on the train after working through an exhausting day, with two men visible inside the train so that they form a face. The words at the top of the train say "Karoshi" and below the train is written Otsukare-sama deshita (oh-TSA-rey-sah-mah DESH-ta), which is the phrase you say to someone who's finishing his day's work, corresponding to "Thanks for working hard today." Great new T-shirt printed in Army Green. Don't work too hard!

J-List stocks region free DVD players that are great for enjoying DVDs from any part of the world. Our low-cost DVD players play discs from any country out of the box, are fully compatible with NTSC and PAL TVs, come with international power supplies, and are fully warranted by the manufacturer. Best of all, they feature the ability to play DIVX and AVI format movies, in incredibly convenient feature since 4-5 movies can be put onto a single disc. We've gotten fresh stock of our high-end DVD-7050 player in stock today -- check it out now!

Remember that now is a great time to pick up that delicious Sakura or Ichigo Kit Kat, some yummy Green Tea Pocky or Meltykiss, or other chocolate products that we sell. In the summer months, which are not far off now, we're unfortunately forced to remove all chocolate products from J-List since they melt like crazy. When we take our chocolate snacks off the site we always get emails from customers wondering why they can't get their favorite Crunky. So check our snack pages now!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Elections in Japan, a run-down of what politics are like here, and using Japanese "honorific" markers for fun and profit

It's my least favorite time of year in Japan right now: election season, when dozens of politicians drive around in loudspeaker cars shouting "Please support me in the election!" or that eternal Japanese phrase Gambarimasu! (I will work hard for you!). The current elections are for prefectural representatives, and down in Tokyo (which is organized as a prefecture with cities, towns and villages operating inside it), Japan-That-Can-Say-No author Shintaro Ishihara is battling to hold onto his job as governor, using the city's bid for the 2016 Olympics as part of his platform. While he may be the Japanese politician foreign residents of Japan love to hate due to a few negative statements he's made in the past, I admire his success at making Japan's capital function more efficiently, for example cutting through the old red tape to allow films like Lost in Translation to be made.

Being used to the American way of doing things, Japan's political system has always been quite confusing to me, with the Diet being subject to dissolution by the Prime Minister at any time, which incredibly doesn't plunge the country into civil war. I often hear Americans say they wish there were an alternative to the two-party system at work in the U.S., and if so, maybe they should take a look at Japan. There are five major political parties here, the largest being the mammoth Liberal Democrat Party, pro-agriculture and pro-business, which has stayed in power almost without exception since the end of World War II. It's so powerful that there have traditionally been factions inside the group, essentially sub-parties within the overall party that decided the real issues, although former Prime Minister Koizumi dismantled a lot of this. The three opposition parties are the Democratic Party of Japan, who love to produce "Manifestos" about investing in our children's future; the Communist Party of Japan, currently agitating for elimination of the 5% consumption tax; and the declining Social Democratic Party, which took a body blow in recent years over its policy of promoting friendly ties with North Korea. Finally there's the New Komeito, part of the current government coalition, which acts as the unofficial political arm of the Sokka Gakkai Buddhist Movement, roughly analogous to the Mormon Church having their own national political party.

Last time I mentioned that the word for rice is "gohan." The first syllable of this word -- go, more commonly pronounced o-- is an interesting aspect of the Japanese language, an "honorific marker" that you put on some words to show respect for them. As a general rule, important concepts like money (okane), relationships like mother or grandmother (okaasan, obaasan) and some everyday blessings like tea (ocha) or a hot bath ("ofuro") take the honorific "o" when speaking or writing. If you were going for total accuracy you could translate a word like oyu as "honorable boiling water," but this is tedious, to say the least. It's interesting to notice the patterns of words that take this honorific syllable: words having to do with death or Buddhism tend to take it (otera = temple, okoh = Buddhist incense), yet words related to Japan's Shinto religion usually don't. English don't usually get the o prefix, but sometimes a waitress will use the word obiiru when bringing you the beer you ordered. Adding the honorific o to a word tends to soften it, so words related to children or babies tend to take it (omaru = child's potty, omutsu = diapers, oshiri = butt). It's always acceptable to use these words without their honorific syllables on the front, although it can make the speech sound rough or uncultured. For example, a person who refers to his mother as kaasan sound like a hillbilly shouting "Ma!"

Interested in Japan's music scene? Got an iPod, or iTunes on your computer? Then we recommend the prepaid Japan iTunes Music Cards J-List sells, the only way to buy music from Apple's iTunes Store here unless you happen to have a credit card with a billing address in Japan (and even I don't have one of those). The iTunes cards are incredibly easy to use -- just lot out of your current iTunes account if you have one, select the Japan store in iTunes, click Redeem, make a new account tied to the iTunes Music card's number, and you're good to go. The music works fine with the iTunes and iPod you're currently using. I personally have been enjoying the original music of Joe Hisaishi, the composer to nearly all of the music from Hayao Miyazaki's animated films, which are all available in the Japan iTunes Store.

I'm totally amazed, but my son turned twelve today. Twelve! That's 4380 days! Because they got an overdose of good Asian food culture in Malaysia they wanted good old pizza, which is what we got.

Here's my son hiding under his "rira-rira." It's a long story...

My daughter baked a cake. It was good, with chocolate covered bananas inside.

My son got a really nice chess board and was happy with it. Of course, when your son get a chess board for his birthday that can mean only one thing...

Yes, it was time for me to get my ass handed to me royally. Every time he ended the game I kept saying no! let me do that move over. The result was that I got beaten about 5 different ways in this one game. Sheesh...

Monday, April 02, 2007

Differences in "maid culture" between Japan and Malaysia, thoughts on technology, and what makes a jar a jar?

First of all, we experienced some server trouble Sunday night for about an hour or so. I'd think of some witty April Fools Day joke to attribute the downtime to but it's already April 2nd in Japan. Sorry for anyone trying to view the site during the trouble -- everything's back to normal now.

My family got back from Malaysia last week, bursting with news about everything that they'd seen there. They were in Kuala Lumpur, the country's largest city, and got to take in many beautiful sights, from mosques to bazaars to the famous Twin Towers. One cosmic truth about Japanese boys is that they all seem to suffer from "beetle mania" and love to collect beetles as pets, and since Malaysia is a regular Beetle Mecca, my son had great fun hunting for his favorite specimens in the backyard. As is natural, there were cultural differences between my Japanese family and the Malaysian friends they were staying with. For example, our friends had never seen snow and were interested in hearing what winter was like in Japan. They were quite wealthy and employed several maids to clean their house, which caused some minor culture shock in my daughter, who wondered what the maids were doing cleaning. In the context of modern Japan, a maid is an incredibly kawaii girl who wears a frilly uniform as she serves coffee and cake and generally provides eye candy for men to enjoy, and they have nothing to do with cleaning. I had to laugh at the differences in the two cultures.

Living with a foreign language every day as I do gives me large and small insights into how our brains are wired, including, for example, how we come to assign words to objects. What makes a jar a jar? In my own dialect of English, at least, it's any glass container that has a wide mouth opening. A bottle is similar, but must have a narrow opening. The Japanese define vocabulary words in the same way, although there can sometimes be confusion when they import English words and assign slightly different meanings to them. To you or me, "juice" comes from various types of fruit, but in Japanese the word is often used to refer to any canned beverage, even if it's tea. Milk comes from cows, but here the word miruku refers to powdered creamer for coffee. Rice in Japanese is usually called gohan, unless you're eating at a Western-style restaurant, in which case it's called by its English name, raisu. Often some of the earliest words to be imported from English are shifted in meaning the most, since the Japanese of the early Meiji Period had very little experience with foreign languages. Some of these older imported words include "rouge" (lipstick) and "manicure" (what they call nail polish), and even the venerable Ramune soda got its name because some Japanese person of the era couldn't pronounce the word "lemonade." Sometimes two words become one, as in "curb" and "curve" which are phonetically impossible to distinguish in Japanese anyway, while in other cases related concepts are split into two, as with clip-on earrings ("earring") and pierced earrings ("pierce"), treated as two separate concepts rather than sub-sets of the same group. And the word jar? In Japanese it usually means "rice cooker" -- go figure.

Technology is always on the move, and no sooner do we get used to one type than it's been replaced by something else. When I first came to Japan in 1991, it was very hip for young people to carry beepers, called "pocket bells" (ポケベル) and my students would constantly send messages to each other, usually during my class. At first the units could only receive numbers, so my students would send messages using cryptic phonetic codes -- for example, good morning ("ohayo") was rendered as 084, and "where are you now" ("ima doko?") came out as 10105. Yeah, I can't figure it out either. Then pocket bells that could display kana characters arrived, allowing more detailed messages to be sent, which really allowed communication to flourish. The ubiquitization of the cellular phone put paid to beepers a few years later, although paging services continued to be operated for customers in specific industries where they were still being used. Last week NTT announced that they were ending their paging service, which brings the pocket bell era to a close. Considering how quickly other technologies seem to be fading -- I'm sure modems and CRT monitors will look really cool and retro in another decade or two -- I wonder what the future holds for all of us?

(Ha, I just realized that the word Pocket Monster is a reference to the term Pocket Bell.)

And now for some random pics that I hopefully haven't posted yet. Do you hate caterpillars? For some reason they are the most detested insect in all Japan -- they're known as Kemushi or "hair bugs" in Japanese. This is one I happened to save from being squashed in front of a store.

Ah, things I love about Japan. This is the current Momi Momi chair line.

Keep your "naisu badii" (nice body) with one of these, a Joba horse riding simulator.

It can also help your golf swing, according to this.

At our place in Karuizawa we were bestoyed a great honor -- a pigeon used our balcony for its nest. Here it is with its new babies.