Friday, May 25, 2007

Star Wars group geekout update, the linguistic roots of Japanese, and psychology through TV commercials

The Star Wars Celebration IV convention is in full swing, and here in Los Angeles tens of thousands of fans are having a group geekout as the film hits its 30th anniversary today. I got to talk with the actor who plans Jango Fett and all the Clone Troopers and impress him with my knowledge of the New Zealand national anthem (I lived there for a year as a kid), got to thank Admiral Piett for being such a great villain, and gave free Pocky to the black chick who plays the green chick that Jabba the Hut dumps into the Rancor pit. Best of all, a Japanese VIP was having trouble communicating with Anthony Daniels (C-3P0) and I got to come to her rescue -- that was cool. As usual, it's great to be in a place where we can meet and greet our wonderful customers, and if you have plans to be at the show, which runs through Monday, please visit us in booth 924 and say hi! (See this page for info on the show.)

I talked last time about Japanese being related to Basque, Turkish, and Hungarian. This was a joke, although it does share certain linguistic features with these languages (also Finnish and some Native American tongues), mainly in that it's an "agglutinating" language, which just means it puts a lot of information in the verb conjugation rather than with helping verbs. Some information that can be contained in the verb form include passive voice, causality, negatives, if constructions and so on, and a single conjugated verb could, if you need it to, communicate something like "if I hadn't been made to work, (I wouldn't have missed my favorite TV show)..." While most languages are grouped into families, the most massive being the Indo-European that spans India and Europe, Japanese is possibly in a class by itself, having no generally accepted link to another language (other than Okinawan). Various theories are discussed, including that Japanese is related to Korean based on grammatical similarities between the two languages (this is usually denied by both Japanese and Koreans, to general amusement); that Japanese is related to a theoretical language group called Altaic that directly links, say, Hungarian and Japanese through a distant linguistic ancestor; and so on. Or maybe the Japanese do descend from the Sun Goddess after all, as their myths suggest?

Psychology is a complex subject, and no matter what culture you're from, there are certain emotional buttons that, say, TV advertisers can use to change the way you feel about their product. One button used in Japan is that of the "worried child" when mothers or fathers are made to buy some product because of the concern their daughter is showing over their health -- parents are saps for kids who are worried about them. The Japanese aren't long on nationalism, perhaps understandable given their past, but during the 1990s a health drink (Regain) gained popularity positioning itself as helping Japanese businessmen do business all over the world, with a theme song to match. One of the most pathetic commercial messages I've seen here is "if you use this product, foreigners will respect you." This was the message Cabin cigarettes sent in a commercial I saw soon after arriving in Japan, shown in movie theaters (yes, they had tobacco commercials, and yes, they showed commercials before a movie started in a theatre, although both are very rare now) which featured a Japanese man riding a train in Europe. As he smoked the company's product, the Europeans were listening attentively as he spoke, hanging on his every witty comment.

This certainly is a fun con to be at. Although it's different from anime shows in general, we're fitting right in despite our focus on Japan. Incidentally, I'm pretty sure you're going to see this Death Star floating above the San Diego Comicon in a few weeks.

Lots of fun fans.

This is General Veers in case you aren't up on your Imperial armor.

Hopefully not traumatized little girl.

This is Oola. Is this woman not hot as hell, or what?

One of the many fun things we're denied because we're working. Oh well.

This dude has such a good idea!

The married couple that makes pajamas out of Star Wars bedsheets together, stays together. Now I want to get them to pose in American Gothic style.

Prelude to the cool "Princess Leia bitchslap" followed by one Leia shouting "You don't even have a uterus!" to a (male) Leia standing there.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

What a difference an elongated vowel makes, Jamestown vs. Sekigahara, and other cultural observations from a cunning linguist

What a difference an elongated vowel can make. Japanese is quite different from English, having had a totally unique developmental history -- it's supposedly related to Mongolian, Basque, Turkish and possibly Hungarian, don't ask me how -- and it sports concepts we couldn't even conceive of in the language of Shakespere. One is a strong differentiation between short vowels (like the o in ocha) and long vowels (the first syllable of Tofu, the second syllable of Shirow's name). If you've ever wondered why someone whose last name is Sato writes it as Satoh or Satou, it's because he's trying to express the longer second syllable as accurately as he can, even though it makes no difference when pronounced in English. Sometimes these vowels can cause transliteration issues. For example, shoujo (with a long vowel) means "girl," while shojo (short vowel) means, er, a female who is pure as newly fallen snow, i.e. a baajin (a virgin). While the former spelling is more common in fannish circles, the latter isn't really wrong, since the two terms are identical in pronunciation in English. U.S. shoujo manga magazine ShojoBeat uses the latter, more simplified spelling, presumably without a lot of confusion by readers thinking that it's focusing on hip, well-drawn virgins. Accuracy can only be taken so far -- otherwise we'd be wearing Doumo-kun T-shirts, cheering baseball star Ichirou, and listing Japan's capital as "Toukyou."

This difference in perception of long and short vowels cropped up back in my ESL teaching days in an amusing way. I had a student named "Yoko Ohno" (long vowel, meaning "big field"), so naturally I made the obvious joke about what a thrill it was to have a famous person in my class and consoled her on the loss of her husband John. She had no idea what I was talking about, though. It turns out that the more famous Yoko Ono's last name was a short vowel (meaning "small field") and this slight difference meant that my student had gone through her life never realizing her name was similar to the woman J-List's own Tomo (a serious Beatles fan) refers to as "Bitch and Witch!" Another time, I was walking with a Japanese friend in a toy shop and we came across a large plush toy of Jiji, the black cat from Hayao Miyazaki's classic film Kiki's Delivery Service. I told my (non-otaku) friend the cat's name, but she refused to believe me. It turned out she was mis-hearing my pronunciation, thinking that the cat's name was jijii (with a longer vowel at the end), which is a very rude word for an old man. (The female version is babaa, similar enough to Babaar that they had to tweak the famous elephant's name for the Japanese versions of his books.) Issues like this are part of the reason why I always recommend that anyone interested in learning Japanese make sure they're using a textbook that exclusively uses hiragana, katakana and kanji rather than romanized Japanese, like the Genki series.

If you don't have a subscription, I recommend you pick up the current issue of National Geographic, which has a great article on the Jamestown settlement of 1607 and the changes that it heralded for the "new" continent as Europeans (and their worms, introduced to North America for the first time in mud brought over as ship ballast) started moving in. It's interesting, because it's very near to the year of the Battle of Sekigahara in Japan (1600), so you can compare the changes in the two places side-by-side. In the last four centuries, Japan has moved from its "Warring States" period when every powerful lord and his brother was trying to become the military master of all Japan, known as Shogun; through the forced peace of the Edo Period, 250 years of separation from the rest of the world, which allowed Japan's culture to mature untouched by outside influences but also stagnate technologically; and through the Meiji Period, bringing rapid modernization and a general wish that Japan was part of Europe, which is why both share DVD region code '2' now. During the same period, one country was transformed several times, while another was built, totally from scratch.

We're off to Los Angles tomorrow to get set up for the Star Wars Celebration IV convention, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Star Wars, May 24-28. We'll be selling lots of good things, from cool toys from Japan to our "Looking for a Japanese Girlfriend" T-shirts and watching Stormtroopers in their native habitat, as opposed to anime conventions where we usually see them. If you'll be at the show, we'd love to have you to drop by booth 924 and say hi. We hope to see you at the show!

Remember that J-List has reworked the RSS feeds on our site, making it easy to use an RSS-aware browser like Apple's Safari, Firefox or IE7, a dedicated feed reader, or a service like Google Reader to watch for new products on J-List. It's really quite ingenious: you register the "feed" you want to watch and when it's updated, your RSS-reader will display the new products for you automatically. You can watch specific J-List product pages for new or restocked products, watch for all new J-List products as they're posted, or create a feed for a specific keyword, say, one that lets you know when new Pinky Street products are added to J-List, or when any new product that has the keyword "study Japanese" appears on the site. One of the coolest feeds lets you see what people are adding to their publicly-shared wish lists, and read their comments. Feed are available for both the J-List and (general product) domains, too. See all the RSS feeds that are available here.

Remember that J-List carries dozens of amazing Domo-kun products for you, more than any other company in the world, we're pretty sure. Domo-kun is the ultra-cute spokesmonster for the "BS" (broadcast satellite) TV network operated by NHK, the BBC of Japan, and he's as cute a monster as you could ever hope to see. Our products include the Domo-kun Pen, the Domo-kun Plush Keychain, Domo-kun straps for your phone, and of course the Domo-kun plush that was seen in the "Whenever I ... God kills a kitten" graphic. We've also got the dynamite Domo-kun T-shirt and Hoodies that are great fun to wear!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Weird new products in the U.S., getting Japanese onomatopoeia on the brain, and what to the Japanese think of us?

Whenever I come back to the U.S., I like to cruise the grocery stores to see what new products have been introduced since I was "in country" last. I know that companies usually can't resist pushing their brands in new directions, which is called "line extension" in marketingspeak -- anyone remember the summer when everyone was wearing Cola-Cola branded clothes back in the 80s? One year I'll find bizarre new concoctions like Yogurt Burst Cheerios, or horrible new shapes and colors added to the Lucky Charms marshmallow pantheon, or Trix brand fruit-flavored yogurt, ugh. This trip I noticed they'd invented beef jerky with A1 steak sauce pre-soaked into it. What will they think of next, Sprite Cola?

A1 steak sauce and beef jerky

One question I'm asked a lot is, what impression do Japanese have of Americans? The answers are always varied, of course, but include that we greet people we've just met as if we've known them for years, we're often not on time, we can be rather "about" (meaning vague or loose about rules), and we often laugh too loudly in public. Another thing I've been told repeatedly is that Americans are "optimistic" and can find something positive in just about any situation. This tendency towards positive thinking was especially important in the years after World War II, when the constructive attitudes of the American and British occupiers became infectious and spread to the Japanese, reassuring them that "everything will be alright." Recently I was talking with some friends about China and what the future might hold with regards to Japan. "It's a foregone conclusion," said one friend, "that Japan will lose to China." Another friend shared this opinion that in future decades, China's population and industrial growth would somehow "defeat" Japan, presumably removing the economic gains Japan has won for itself. This struck me as interesting, since I'm definitely optimistic about the future -- although the country will continue to grow in economic stature, I'm sure America will never "lose" to China. Another friend was sure that China was following Japan's disastrous bubble economy and would self-destruct on its own, so Japan had nothing to fear economically.

Onomatopoeia are words that are based on sounds, although there can be quite a wide range between perceptions. For example, we Americans are convinced dogs make sounds like "bark bark!" or "woof woof!" while to the Japanese they sound like "wan wan!" (a big dog) and "kyan kyan!" (a small dog like a Pomeranian or a Chihuahua). When you've been around the Japanese language as much as I have, the local perceptions of sounds tend to seep into your skull, and I have no problem describing the slamming of a door as "batan!" or the sound of being dripping wet as "bisho bisho" or the sound of a Pocky stick breaking in two as "poki!" (which is where it gets its name). Because the Japanese are extremely creative, they have sound words for concepts we'd never think of assigning words to, and my brain sometimes picks up on those, too. For example, when I make a joke but no one laughs, I mentally think to myself "shiiiiin!" ("sheen"), which is the sound of total, deafening silence in the Japanese language.

J-List has been involved with promoting Japan's amazing PC dating-sim games from the beginning, and we offer virtually every English-translated "H" game available, from great companies like G-Collections, JAST USA, Peach Princess and Kitty Media. We're happy to announce that there's a new blog where you can follow the development of your favorite titles, the official JAST USA side blog at We'll be posting news and updates of interest to bishoujo gaming fans as well as occasional hints at future titles, so check back often!

Remember that the "dating-sim of the month" right now is Critical Point, the outstanding sci-fi game created by one of the original writers of Mobile Suit Gundam, Bubblegum Crisis and Macross, which brings an authentic pedigree and classic anime feel to it. Featuring a great mystery set on a distant moon base which you must unravel, and more than 20 endings, it's one game we can really recommend to many fans of Japan's PC dating-sims. And this month it's available for a special price, so get your copy now (the month is almost over...)!

Quickie pics of Vegas, in case you wanted to see.

It was our first time at the Bellagio. Very nice hotel, we were happy with everything except the difficulty at winning a the tables. The water show was great, and I sprung for the extra expensive rooms that overlooked the water.

This was breathtaking, going up in the Stratosphere. I mean, you expect Vegas to look good fro 1000 feet up, but we couldn't believe how nice it was. Getting toshed at the bar up there was even more fun.

Hey! They have crepes in America!