Friday, May 04, 2007

Shared experiences through anime and manga, on raising kids who are "half," and understanding an aspect of Japan through Newsweek

Anime and comic books -- which are collectively referred with the term "manga" in Japanese -- are an inseparable part of modern life here, and even people who never wear the label of otaku grow up plugged into this "universal culture machine." Whether it's being moved by the episode when Doraemon is preparing to return to the future and Nobita refuses to yield to the bully Gian so his robot cat friend will be able to keep from worrying about him; thrilling at the mind-bending twists of Evangelion, ultimately an anime about humans attempting to artificially create the Rapture; or tearing through their father's collection of Tezuka Osamu comics as my kids are doing now, each generation is brought closer together by the shared popular culture that's all around them. Outside of special fan events at Tokyo Big Sight and geekish havens like Akihabara, anime culture is not all that visible, although every once in a while you see one of the famous Ita-sha cars with anime characters painted on the hoods, or an auto repair shop that inexplicably uses the art of Space Battleship Yamato on its sign. Still, it seems that love of anime and related culture is never far from the surface. Every Sunday my parents' rural liquor store gets the new Shonen Jump in a day earlier than the convenience store chains, the only benefit given to mom-and-pop shops by the publishing industry, and it's not uncommon for a man in a business suit to drive up in a BMW and rush in to buy the newest issue. The current government, it seems, has finally started to realize that anime and manga have become one of the primary ambassadors of goodwill for Japan and are talking about providing seed capital and other funding to help the industry stay strong.

It's interesting having kids who are half Japanese and half American, and my wife and I put quite a lot of thought into what kind of identity we want them to have. It's important to both of us that the Japanese side of our kids be "complete," but exactly what is it to be Japanese? There are certain to be many definitions, but to me, it means that they should have received their compulsory education in Japan and learned their kanji (check), and should be able to eat natto, the famous fermented soybeans (check). They should know the value of good relationships -- the group of boys my son rides the train with will probably be friends for the rest of their lives -- and should love peace, since that's one of the defining character traits of the Japanese today (war between Jedi and Sith is allowed). Of course, the American side is equally important, and we've always taken steps to expose them to as many aspects of life in the U.S. as we can, including mandatory summer camp each year, a sightseeing trip to D.C., lots of books in English, and awareness of fun events like Halloween, Christmas and so on. My kids are also familiar with all the Schoolhouse Rock songs and the full catalog of Weird Al Yankovich -- hopefully we're doing okay.

My wife reads the Japanese version of Newsweek, and sometimes I like to thumb through it to compare it to the U.S. version, or the sometimes laughable "International" edition that just happens to have exactly one news story from the various regions it's sold in, e.g. India, Singapore, Japan, etc. Although Newsweek is published here in Japanese, the editors knows that its readers tend to be interested in English and international business, and they recently ran an article on how to tackle an American-style job interview. The questions they presented seemed chosen to be as close to linguistic torture for Japanese ESL learners as could be, with no "right" answers at all. The list included open-ended questions ("tell me about yourself"), asked them to accurately evaluate themselves in both positive and negative ways ("what are your strengths or weaknesses?") and asked the interviewee to estimate in concrete terms what they thought they could achieve for the company in the future. This is the complete opposite of how job interviews are handled in Japan, where people looking for employment are expected to act in an extremely humble way, accurately representing their past work or educational history while dressing down what they're achieved in the past, and avoiding standing out from other applicants. If you don't wear this mantle of modesty during a job interview you certainly won't be hired in Japan.

This month's "Dating-Sim Game of the Month" is the classic sci-fi game Critical Point, created by one of the original writers of such old-school anime titles as Macross, Mobile Suit Gundam and Bubblegum Crisis! The year is 2037, and mankind is in the midst of a new cold war -- but things are getting hot in space. When a dire situation on the moon threatens political stability, you're dispatched to investigate. The military learned long ago that women are better adapted to lonely assignments in space, which naturally leads to some interesting plot twists. A rich and complex game with over 20 potential endings to explore, available this month only at a special price!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Bizarre urban legends of Japan, funny English words the Japanese invent, and where are all the pregnant women?

Urban legends are funny things, sometimes leading millions of people to believe something that just isn't true. When Gerber started selling baby food in Africa, people there assumed that the picture of a baby on the package meant that it contained ground-up babies. Walt Disney was put into cryogenic suspension and sleeps there even now, deathless. The Titanic sunk because it carried a cursed mummy in its hold. Michael Jackson bought the bones of Elephant Man John Merrick. Richard Gere had that thing with the gerbil. All of these are examples of stories that had no basis in fact, but many people believe them nevertheless. They have urban legends in Japan, too, and some of them can be quite fascinating. An old legend passed down by the Kiristans (what Christians in Japan were known as in the 14th century) states that after he was resurrected, Jesus came to Aomori, Japan, at the top of the main island of Honshu, where he lived out the rest of his life and died, and you can visit his grave in the town of Herai, a shortened form of the word Hebrew in Japanese. Another interesting myth that most smokers here believe is that the Lucky Strike logo was designed after the bombing of Hiroshima in World War II, made to look like a mushroom cloud when viewed from above...which is false, since the logo was being used back in the 1920s or earlier. Last week the Internets were buzzing with news that over 2000 Japanese had purchased imported sheep from Australia thinking they were poodles, but the story, too, turned out to be completely false.

Everyone knows that adding 'y' to the end of a noun can turn it into an adjective, like silky, messy, rainy, or healthy, and since Japanese usually study six years of English before finishing high school, people generally have a working knowledge of the grammar here. It's common for makers of products to play with English in ways that can be very creative, spawning a line of ladies' support stockings that bears the name Supporty or a deep-cleaning shampoo called Rooty, or how about the slogan for a construction company, "Home, Homer, Homest"? Japanese also reverse engineer the grammar of English to create new slang terms. For example, new words are commonly made by, say, removing the "tic" ending from a word like "dramatic" or "aromatic" and tacking it onto a Japanese words, creating otome-tic (oh-toh-meh-CHI-ku), meaning something that a girl would do, like having a pink box of tissue on her desk; or gaijiin-tic (gai-jin-CHI-kku), meaning something that you'd expect a foreigner to do, like enter a house with his shoes on. (For phonetic reasons, the "tick" sound comes out as "chick" in Japanese.) These hybrid words are often embraced by plugged-in otaku, resulting in words like Akiba-ism, which encompasses all anime, manga and game culture, as seen in Tokyo's Akihabara region; or the maid cafe called Mail-ish, which means, hmm, well, it doesn't mean any damn thing, but it sounds kind of cool in an "email-ish" sort of way, and maids are pretty.

My Japanese mother-in-law once remarked to me that, "I don't see many women with big stomachs these days." At first I thought that women were getting thinner, but my wife said no, her mother had been referring to the dearth of pregnant women in Japan. It's true -- the birthrate here is the lowest in the industrialized world, just 1.25 children per couple, a problem known as shoshika or "declining number of children," and it's getting more and more common to see companies offering products and services to those over 65 rather than baby-related items. In some rural areas, the population shrinkage is causing hospitals to change the way they treat patients. In Mie Prefecture, for example, the maternity wards of three separate hospitals were combined in one location to more efficiently utilize resources, but this wasn't welcome news for expectant mothers who now had to travel an hour or more to have their babies.

Remember that J-List carries the most hilarious wacky Japanese T-shirt in the world, our "Looking for a Japanese Girlfriend" design, which would perhaps most accurately be translated as "Now accepting applications for a Japanese girlfriend." Available as a classic T-shirt, a fleece hoodie, an embroidered hat, an alternate calligraphy style, and rather kinkily, a fitted girl's T-shirt. Whether you are interested in meeting Japanese females or just want a fun conversation starter with Japanese who happen to see it, our T-shirt will be a fun addition to your wardrobe. We also make a "Japanese boyfriend" line.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Living in Japan and changes in your native language, of Golden Week and flying carp, and a "Gaijin Battle" on Japanese TV

Living in Japan means adapting to many things, not the least of which is modifying your native language. When I first got to Japan, I was told I spoke incredibly fast, and my students begged me to speak more clearly so they could understand what I was saying. Before I knew it, I was speaking "too" slowly, prompting my mother to ask me what was wrong when I talked to her on the phone. In my own personal dialect of Southern Californian English, I'd always referred to the thing you blow your nose with as a Kleenex, but in Japan, no one knew what I was talking about so I quickly reverted to "tissue." I've learned to order a "Happy Set" for the kids at McDonald's instead of a Happy Meal, and when I need to get some money out of my bank account I drop by the "Cash Corner," or the ATM. I've also learned that the word "sauna" has three syllables, not two. Many Western foods seem to have morphed into some pretty odd forms here. For example, when it's hot out, I might reach for some "ice" (what ice cream is usually called), and if I go to the local amusement park with my kids I might buy them each an "American Dog" (a corn dog) and "fried potato" (french fries) before we ride the "jet coaster" (roller coaster). Although these terms always feel odd at first, it's spooky how easy it is for your brain to get used to them.

One television show we watch almost every week is Sanma's Super Karakuri TV, a wacky variety show that does things like ask Japanese with no special linguistic abilities to answer questions in English while subtitles translate what they are actually saying for viewers, or hold impromptu quiz shows with drunk salaryman as they stumble home late at night, or put on competitions to see which famous star can create a gourmet meal for less than $3. As with most Japanese variety shows, the interaction of the host with the various "talents" (actresses, singers, comedians) who are on that week is one of the most important aspects, and where America's Funniest Home Videos might just shut up and show you some more clips, this show will stop the action and try to get stars like cute-as-a-button idol Yuko Ogura to guess what's going to happen next. Last night they added a new section, Gaijin Battle, in which foreigners who know an incredible amount about Japan do battle by asking questions to each other, like, of all the Ultraman brothers, which is the oldest, or what was the significance of the Bakumatsu (the ending years of the Tokugawa Shogunate) on modern Japan? Canadian otaku Robert Baldwin easily dispatched his challengers and maintained his lead.

We're right in the middle of Golden Week, a cluster of Japanese holidays that usually fall near each other, which are Showa Day on April 29, originally the birthday of old Emperor Showa, aka Hirohito; Constitution Day on May 3, the date the modern Japanese constitution took effect; Green Day on May 4, a day to celebrate nature; and Children's Day on May 5. While Golden Week is a nice break from the daily grind, it's all but useless as a holiday, since the other 126,999,999 Japanese in the country also have the week off, too. Want to go to Tokyo Disneyland? Hope you enjoy waiting for six hours just to get in to the place. How about spending the day in Karuizawa, up in the mountains of central Japan? Oops, there's a 30 km traffic jam of Tokyoites trying to get into the town. This is also the season of Koi-nobori, the beautiful carp-shaped kites which families with boy children display proudly to the neighborhood. Everywhere you look in Japan right now you can see beautiful streaming carp, seeming to swim upstream when the wind blows.

Comic AG is the popular magazine of translated "H" manga from Japan's best artists, which gives you an amazing 80 pages of content for the low price of just $4.99. In addition to selling single issues and revolving subscriptions, we've sold handy sets of back issues in groups of five at a special price, which proved to be a popular way for our customers to complete their collections and save money. We've improved this sesame now, allowing you to buy any sets of five issues you might need, be it vol. 40-45, vol. 41-46, or the current issues, and save 20%. Comic AG is published by Icarus Publishing, and you can really feel their passion in each issue, with the super-accurate translations and the care they take with the printing, making sure to work from the original artist pages, not the published Japanese edition as most other manga publishers do.