Saturday, May 19, 2007

All about the Japanese attention to "kakko" (style), feelings about Japanese who make the country look good (and bad), and "Vegas, baby, Vegas."

Hello again from J-List. This time I've hopped over to sunny Las Vegas for a few days of much-needed relaxation and fun. My wife insisted we stay at the Bellagio, which I assume is so she can act out some George Cloony/Brad Pitt fantasy, but I'm okay with that. Right now I'm enjoying a frozen margarita by the poolside and wondering at that most amazing of inventions, the open wireless Internet connection.

"You've been in Japan too long when you appear for your first skiing lesson with brand new Rossignol high performance racing skis and an aerodynamic racing suit with color matched goggles...and then snowplow down." One thing I've learned about the Japanese is, they often care a great deal about how they appear to others. One of the reasons why Japan seems to be such a "proper" place, with most members of society doing what they're supposed to be doing more or less, is the mechanism known as hito no me (hee-toh no meh), or "the eyes of others." If you're outside the line of what those around you perceive as "normal," the weight of their gaze will slowly pressure you into getting back in line. When a Japanese goes skiing he or she usually approaches it from the standpoint of kakko (style), and starts with a "proper" set of expensive skiing equipment -- a lot different from the jeans and garbage bag I've worn in the past.

As a country, too, the Japanese are concerned with how they look to outsiders, and whenever an international event like the Olympics or the World Cup rolls around, I know there'll be a flurry of construction at airports and major train stations so that visitors from foreign countries will "oo" and "ah" at the technological achievements the Japanese have attained. The Japanese love for any of their number to get international recognition, and Japanese who raise the status of the nation, like writers Kawabata and Mishima and directors Kurosawa and Miyazaki, enjoy a near God-like status because they improved the image of Japan in the eyes of the world. Similarly, Japanese who made their country look bad internationally become pariahs in Japan. Yoko Ono, the woman who broke up the Beatles? It's like she doesn't exist here. Baseball player Hideki Irabu was a slob who brought embarrassment to Japan, and they've all but written him out of the history of Japanese in the MLB. Issei Sagawa is a Japanese man who killed and ate a women in France in the early 1980, which earned him the emnity of his people even though he has some success writing restaurant reviews now.

It's often said that Japanese society is 10-25 years behind the U.S., and that changes in the U.S. will filter over to Japan 10-25 years after they've happened in America. Sometimes this seems true -- it took Japan until 1999 to get its first law requiring car seats for children, and laws against things like sexual harassment in the workplace similarly followed U.S. laws about a decade later. Also, Japan only recently released that "skin color" wasn't really an appropriate name for a crayon and changed it. When I first came to Japan, it was common for newspaper job listings to be divided among "men" and "women" with many listings stating that only people aged 30 and under would be considered. Over the past few years, laws have been passed that forbid this practice. Companies get around this new rule by using graphics in their classified ads -- for example, a picture of a young, pretty OL (that's Japanese for "office lady" or female office worker) sends a signal that the company is looking for younger females to fill a certain position, and not males, and thus, more females will apply for that job.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Thinking about "conformity" some more, making English easier for students to learn, and the Brazil you can visit from Tokyo for 1000 yen

I've written about conformity in one form or another a lot recently. The word isn't one that Americans probably have a very good impression of, although if you stop and think about it, society functions only because all of us are conforming in one way or another -- for example, I'm wearing pants right now, as you probably are, too. Still, I know that the Japanese carry the concept of "harmony" and working together farther than most countries might. I had a British friend who went back to the U.K. because he couldn't stand the image of his son wearing a yellow hat and walking in a line with other kindergarten kids, looking like little ducklings following behind the mother duck. When Japanese seem to rebel against society at large by dressing up in outrageous "goth-loli" costumes in Harajuku on Sundays or driving motorcycles modified to be extra-loud through the city, in a way they're just jumping from one group to another, conforming in a non-standard way, but conforming nevertheless. Back in the early 1980s when anime was a really "underground" thing to be into, my friends and I fancied ourselves quite the rebels, too. Living in a country like Japan is great because it makes you reflect on your own society, too, and cause you to wonder what is truly original, and what is inspired by outside influences?

"You've been in Japan too long if you have, at any time, been engrossed in an 'easy reader' novel or other work intended for ESL learners." English is a difficult language, of course, with thousands upon thousands of vocabulary words for students to muck through. To help them out, there are "reduced vocabulary" books published which have a lower level of vocabulary, like the 1500-word version of Love Story that I couldn't put down. Once I got the bright idea to teach a class using a Magic 8-Ball, which would give my students practice with asking yes/no questions like, "Will Keiko be a flight attendant someday?" or "Will Peter give us a test tomorrow?" Sadly, almost all the answers provided by the traditional 8-Ball ("signs point to yes," "my sources say no" etc.) seemed custom-crafted to cause confusion among learners of English -- too bad no one ever made an "easy" version of the Magic 8-Ball for ESL use. Incidentally, I noticed the other day that they've made a "simple English" version of Wikipedia. Too bad they didn't have that available back when I was teaching!

Oizumi Oizumi picture 2

Brazil may be on the other side of the world from Japan, but it's just a short drive away from our house in Japan. The town of Oizumi (oh-EE-zoo-mee), about 30 minutes from the J-List office, is known as "the Brazil you can visit from Tokyo for just 1000 yen." With an official population of 10% hailing from Brazil (but, wink wink, the unofficial count may be more than twice that number, wink wink), it's a sprawling center of Brazilian language and culture. Just as in the U.S., the high number of foreigners can cause friction with the local residents, despite the fact that many factories and businesses in the area depend on the pool of Brazilian labor, and when the annual Carnival festival got too rowdy a few years ago, the mayor of the town pulled the plug. Many of the residents of the town are of Japanese descent, the products of various diasporas of Japanese to South America during the early 20th century, and these immigrants get special status when it comes to getting work visas, etc. One major complaint I have about the situation with Brazilians in Japan is the recent trend towards constructing schools to education Brazilian children in their native language, which only erects barriers between them and the larger Japanese society, and makes it difficult for them to ever consider themselves a part of the whole, as I do myself. A much better solution would be to have school with some classes taught in Portuguese but with a time-limit that forced the students to learn Japanese, perhaps with a special Portuguese-only track for kids who know they'll be returning home in a short time.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Jet Lagging in the USA, ways that Japanese reflect total social harmony, and would you save your baby's umbilical cord?

Well, once again I've made the hop from Japan to San Diego, which takes about 24 hours from door to door -- not too bad, considering I've travelled halfway across the globe. International travel can be a hassle, but at least it's just one long flight compared with making several different connections, as you often have when flying inside the U.S., and alcohol on international flights is always free. I'm currently going through my brief period of "reverse culture shock" in which everything in the U.S. looks kind of funny to me, from the sizes of "small" drinks at restaurants to cars careening down the wrong side of the road and so on. The colors that enter my eye actually seem to be different, but that might be the jet lag I'm feeling right now, or perhaps the leftover effects of all that free alcohol on the plane.

The Japanese can be a harmonious group of people, able to move in tandem in ways that hodge-podge Americans might have trouble conceiving of. One interesting concept is koromo-gae (koh-roh-moh GAH-eh), the official changing from summer to winter clothes, or vice versa. Since Japanese all change from their winter to their summer school uniforms on June 1, and back to winter uniforms on October 1, warm weather often spills over requiring students to swelter in the heat for a few weeks on each end. Although it might be very hot outside, virtually all students make the switch on the same day, so that one day you're seeing dark blue winter uniforms and the next day they're replaced by white-topped sailor suits, as if by magic. We got a lesson on how important not standing out can be to students the other day. During some extra-hot weather last week, we suggested to our son that he switch to his summer uniform early, since it eas plenty warm to warrant wearing the short-sleeve outfit. It'll be some time before I can forget the look of utter shock he gave us as we suggested that he be the only boy in the entire school to switch to his summer uniform early just because it was uncomfortablly warm. Sometimes confirmity can be important, I guess.

You never know when Japanese customs will catch you off guard. When our kids were born, I insisted on being in the operating room during the birth so I could be the one to cut the umbillicle cords and help bring them into the world. This was rare enough that I got some surprised comments from the doctor and nurses, who were impressed with my dedication. I was talking about this event with my wife the other day, and she told me "Oh yes, and I still have those umbicle cords saved in a drawer." Supposedly, it's considered a requirement for parents to save that all-important memento of their children when they're born, to dry it and put it in a specially decorated box and keep it safe. Another interesting child-related custom is that of throwing teeth that fall out on the roof or under the house, depending on whether the tooth that came out was on the bottom or the top of the mouth, respectively. This ensures that strong teeth will grow in the future.

On the heels of our great permanent price reduction on a dozen or so of our English-translated PC dating-sim games, we've got great news for you: the next two games we're posting for pre-orders! The first title is Snow Sakura, an outstanding game by D.O. in which you play Yuuji Tachibana, who has moved to a cold part of Japan, surprised to find himself surrounded by beautiful girls who love him. Can he discover the mystery of the strange cherry blossoms that bloom in the cold of winter? Then enjoy the upcoming Lightning Knight Raidy, the popular fantasy "monster combat RPG" from Zyx in which you must prowl through virtual dungeous and do battle with beautiful female monsters. Both games are in pre-production now and will be released in the coming months. You can preorder now and get free shipping when they come in!

For the new update, the J-List staff has prepared lots of new and back-in-stock goodies for you, including ear cleaners shaped like samurai swords, our fun electric eraser shaped like a banana, good luck charms for 'safety driving,' restocked snacks (Black Sugar Caramels, Black Black Tablet Strong Type, Shigekix Cola), restocked toys (Totoro Alarm Clock, Bible Black figure, Hello Kitty Play Refrigerator), and much more. For our 18 plus customers, enjoy many great items too. Click here to see all the newly updated items.