Friday, April 13, 2007

Funny things you may see in Japan, strategies for taking tests, and an important difference between Japanese and American schools

Hello again from Japan where getting your hair colored is known as a "hair manicure."

For some reason, one of the weirdest sights you can see in Japan is two foreigners using Japanese to carry on a conversation. Although it's theoretically no different from people from France and Germany using a third language to communicate, the sight of two gaijin chatting in nihongo looks very strange here, and will often get amused giggles from passers-by. I used to have an Iranian friend who spoke no English, so we had to use Japanese to communicate. He'd ask me if America was really the way it looked in Hollywood movies, and I'd ask questions about life back in Iran, and we both learned a lot. Once I flew to the States on Varig, the national carrier of Brazil, and learned that Brazilians aren't generally fluent in my native tongue. Any small talk I wanted to make with the people around me had to be done in Japanese.

I remember those standardized tests we had to take back in school, the ones where you had to use a No. 2 pencil (although I have yet to encounter a No. 1 or No. 3 pencil in my life). The teachers would try their best to give us some strategies for the tests, like, make sure you blacken in the circles completely and, if you have time at the end, go back and check your answers. The Japanese are a bit more focused on tests than I was during my education, and the idea of studying for a university entrance exam isn't really about simply learning the subjects that will be tested, but rather how to approach the test itself. Teachers who prepare their students to take the test for a school like the prestigious Aoyama Gakuin University have to research the past year's exams so they can help predict what the students need to cram for this year, and there are prep schools that do nothing but prepare students to get into a single university. Students want results, and these prep schools will advertise the percentage of students who got into their school of choice each year. When it came time for my kids to take the "Eiken" test, the standard test of English that's usually taken by much older students, my wife plotted a complex strategy for them, allowing them to score points on their strengths (listening comprehension) while avoiding the difficult patches (long-paragraph reading and "find the grammatical errors" exercises). Both passed with flying colors.

If you've ever tried complimenting a Japanese person on something, their language ability for example, you might be surprised to hear them deny your compliment. A big part of being Japanese is having humility, which is called kenson (KEN-son) in Japanese, and as a rule people here take great pains to avoid appearing boastful and proud. When a Japanese person gives you a gift, they'll usually say, "This isn't very interesting, but please accept it," or if it's food, "I'm not sure if this tastes good or not." One major difference between schools in the U.S. and Japan that I've noticed is that here, the children themselves are responsible for every lick of cleaning that goes on in their school, from sweeping to wiping off desks to cleaning the bathrooms, including the "big cleaning" that's done at the end of the year. There are no janitors at Japanese schools, just a handyman for doing jobs like changing out lights -- all the cleaning is the responsibility of the students. This certainly has some budgetary benefits for schools, but it also helps build character and yes, a little humility, in the kids. This tradition of self-cleaning is carried over into many companies, and every Monday morning the J-List employees wipe, sweep, clean and vacuum the office to make sure we have a clean place to work in all week.

Remember that J-List sells incredibly warm hooded sweatshirts that are perfect for cooler months, or for throwing on the evenings when it cools down. Our hoodies feature cool kanji designs, from our classic "Looking for a Japanese Girlfriend" design to our fun "Respect the Emperor and Expel the Foreign Barbarians." We've also got our great Domo-kun hoodies for you, a great way to show your individuality and love of Japanese pop culture. While most of the hoodies we see being sold online are the inferior 50/50 blends that feel rough against the skin after a short time, we sell the best hoodies money can buy, with high quality 80/20 blends that are really soft and cozy.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Japanese fear of making mistakes, the end of the Japanese blood type myth, and panty shots in anime you didn't expect to see

Although the Japanese generally study six years of English (or up to ten if they take it in college), they're not as a rule famous for their linguistic skills. There's a long list of reasons why this is so -- English is considered a "test" subject like math, science and Japanese history, grammar and vocabulary are invariably taught in Japanese by Japanese teachers, there are relatively few native speakers around to practice with, and so on. Another big reason many Japanese can have trouble attaining competence in a foreign language is fear of making errors. I saw a concrete example of this many years ago while working at a Japanese supermarket in San Diego, where I noticed a tiny sticker that read "curry" stuck on a box of Vermont Curry. (By the way, you've been in Japan too long when you no longer find anything unusual in the concept of "Vermont Curry.") Being the curious type, I removed the sticker to see that the company had accidentally printed "carry" on the package, a natural enough mistake for a foreign company to make, and had been compelled to fix the error in a way that actually brought more attention to the problem. Many Japanese seem to be quite fearful of making mistakes when speaking English, and it's hard for them to overcome this barrier when they go to a foreign country and must get over "pre-thinking" what they want to say before saying it. In reality, errors are part of the feedback essential for communication, and I've never forgotten a vocabulary word that I screwed up royally with when using the first time. If I had a secret weapon when it came to studying Japanese it was that I never concerned myself with the zillions of errors I made as I try to get my point across to someone.

Vermont Curry?

Historically, the Japanese have placed a great store in what blood type a person is, and some (admittedly silly) people adhere to the belief that the shape and antigen type of your red blood cells can determine your personality. Supposedly, type A folks are straight-laced, serious about everything, very organized, like Felix from The Odd Couple if you're old enough to know what I'm talking about; type B are "my pace," e.g. they go at their own pace, live in their own world, quickly get bored with things that don't interest them, and speak their minds to a fault; type O are very bold, hate to lose and have good leadership skills; and AB people are often so smart they look strange to everyone else. A few years ago there was a series of TV shows that purported to do experiments on groups of people, seeing how kids of different blood types would solve problems for example. For years, my wife would make pronouncements about me or my kids, that we did such-and-such because of our blood type, but she recently received a shock that caused her world view to come crashing down, when a doctor friend of ours asked my kids if they'd like to see their own blood in a microscope. It turned out that both my meticulous son who keeps a detailed log of all his weekly allowance expenditures and my not-a-care-in-the-world daughter who passed a difficult English test by guessing at the answers are both type O, and not A and B as she'd expected.

Have you gained some weight? If you're a big person and come to Japan, be prepared to hear light-hearted comments about your weight. Although it's usually not polite to make direct mention of a person's girth in the U.S., in Japan it's quite common to start a conversation with an acquaintance by asking him if he's gained weight recently before getting down to the discussion at hand. It's not fun, but you get used to it quickly enough, and the Japanese mean no harm in it -- it's just a kind of small talk, like discussing the weather or the economy, since there are so few people who are on the big side here. (Actually, it's okay when they comment on your weight. If they stop mentioning it altogether, you might have a problem.)

We've just finished doing more upgrades to the J-List website today. Unfortunately the changes to the site might have caused browser cookies to be reset, clearing the shopping cart contents for some customers using the site right as we did the changeover. Very sorry for the inconvenience if you were using the site at the time. Pesky IE7 and its mis-directed anti-phishing warnings...

Remember that J-List sells a magazine that's personally done a lot of good for me, Nihongo Journal, a monthly periodical featuring Japanese lessons for many levels, from beginner-intermediate on up, covering a variety of language areas, from business Japanese to conversational speaking to preparing for the JLPT. We carry the magazine via our popular "Reserve Subscription" service which lets you get Japan's most interesting magazine sent to you each month. As with our other subscriptions for Japan's anime, manga, fashion, JPOP, men's and other magazines, you can pay month-to-month as each issue comes in via credit card, check or money order or Paypal, or you can pre-pay for a year's subscription all at once.

I've been on quite a tear recently, watching classic anime like Touch (the most excellent baseball manga ever), Arion (hilarious combination of Zeta Gundam characters with the Greek Pantheon), and lately, the original Yamato. I thought it'd be fun to compare with the original U.S. release.

There are, ah, a few scenes that I don't remember seeing before. And don't even get me started on Dr. Sado (Dr. Sane) and his "spring water" with the "sake" kanji clearly written on the label.

The fan translation I'm watching is done by Central Anime in Kansas (major shout out to you guys!), which is funny since Gunma (where I am) is probably the "Kansas" of Japan. These guys put lots of great commentary in the translation like what was going on historically when the episode was first aired. They also did the Touch translation.

Most interesting, of course, where the World War II sections that were not in the U.S. version, at least to my recollection.

As I recall, they said "The Yamato" in one line, then renamed it the Argo (bleah) right away. This version had a long scene devoted to the last battle of the Yamato.

Through one of those bizarre coincidences Japan likes to throw at you (like the one about how, through random chance, I just happened to come live in the city where the creator of my favorite anime/manga Touch was born and marry a woman who happened to share his birthdate of 2-9), they showed Otokotachi no Yamato, the film about the end of the ship, the next day, and it was "timely-sugiru" so I watched it.

It's hilarious to realize how totally Star Trek (TNG and beyond) gets its cues from the Yamato series. Like the Holodeck.

A reeeeally cool bunch of parody anime dubbers (no, not that bunch of parody anime dubbers) called Cornpone, who have made many things that I haven't seen, did a great (long) short film called Animation vs. Live Action, in which they basically pit the TNG Enterprise against the Yamato/Argo, and other fun stuff.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Japan's latest shining baseball star, fun space-saving innovations, and Japan is wasted on the Japanese

Japan takes its baseball seriously, and right now the whole country is closely watching Daisuke Matsuzaka as he starts his new career with the Red Sox. A longtime favorite among Japanese baseball fans for his boyish face and strong pitching repertoire, Daisuke is the latest player to make the hop into the Big Leagues. This guy was literally born to play baseball -- his mother named him after Daisuke Araki, the star of the Koshien high school baseball championship the year he was born, and he went on to win the Koshien championship with his high school in 1998. When he joined the Seibu Lions as their #1 draft pick, he distinguished himself further by striking out the .380-batting Ichiro three times in a row the first time they went head to head, which no had ever done. Like every Japanese baseball player, he married an attractive "announcer" (newscaster), but his relationship with the lovely Tomoyo Shibata caused quite a scandal at the time, since she's five years older then him (they called her a cradle robber). As usual, the Japanese go wild over their citizens who achieve recognition outside Japan, be it baseball players like Daisuke or Ichiro, directors like Otomo or Miyazaki, or mangaka like Shirow Masamune, and this is no exception. (When Kenzaburo Oe won the Nobel Prize for literature it was funny to watch most Japanese people wearing questioning manga faces, saying "Who's that?")

Since Japan has just 1/25 the land area of the U.S. but half its population, people here have to come up with innovative ways of using land efficiently. Some friends of ours recently built a restaurant near the center of town, and did what many business owners do: they built their house above their restaurant, with a separate entrance and everything. My house is the same, with half of the downstairs taken up by our rural liquor shop, especially handy when I run out of beer late at night. Imagine if the Denny's near you was built on stilts to allow cars to park underneath, so that the parking lot and the restaurant itself could share the same plot of land? In Japan that's how it's usually done. Sometimes when I go to the Prefectural Office in Maebashi I put my car in the vertical parking garage, essentially a giant elevator that stores your car until you're ready for it, then spits it out when you need it again. And whenever my mother comes to Japan, she has to get a picture of the Japanese gas stations with the pumps located above the cars with hoses that drop down, enabling a gas station to be constructed in a much smaller space than could otherwise be used.

Youth is wasted on the young, they say, and in a similar way, Japan is wasted on the Japanese. Foreign visitors are always taken with the beautiful temples of Kyoto and Nara or the graceful Himeji Castle near Kobe, yet all too often it seems that Japanese are quite ho-hum about the amazing country they live in. I've travelled all around Japan, hitchhiking or taking the Youth 18 ticket that lets you go anywhere you want within a 24 hour period for around $20 as long as you don't consider spending 16 hours inside a slow local train to be a drawback, but I've yet to meet a Japanese who feels quite the same way about this place as I do. Japanese high school students usually take a school trip to Kyoto but most of the time they're bored when they get there, and when my wife saw the beautiful rock garden at Ryoan-ji in Kyoto she admitted a strong desire to run out and mess up all the little rocks that were combed so neatly. Taking your own country for granted certainly isn't limited to Japan, of course -- I have a friend in Rome who's never been to Venice, just a few hours away by car, and there are many places the staff of J-List has visited in the U.S. that I've never been to. So I guess it's all part of being human.

We've got a treat for fans of PC dating-sim games: we're permanently dropping the price of Casual Romance Club by $10. A fantastic game from Japanese publisher Libido, it's in a class by itself since it was released in Japan already translated, and it's the only game where you can choose to hear the girls' voices in the original Japanese or cutely accented English. In addition to a unique gaming dating system in which you actually go on dates with the girls in the club, the game comes in a large Japanese box with the most beautiful printed game manual you'll ever see, hardcover and glossy and fully translated into English. Enjoy the game at its new price!