Saturday, June 09, 2007

The challenge of raising kids in a foreign country, more on the shrine China and Korea love to hate, and a Shinto ceremony in my living room

First of all, a minor computer problem here in Japan caused some delays in processing orders on Friday. We're very sorry for the problem -- all is working again now!

Sometimes it can be a challenge raising bilingual kids in a foreign country. While I'm more than capable of looking over my son's English assignments and diary entries and help my daughter with finding information on the Internet, I'm not exactly equipped to help them with their kanji, especially as they get older. My son is currently struggling with Classical Japanese History right now, and I'm not able to help him -- I don't have much of a sense for the nuances between the Kamakura and Ashikaga Bakufu periods of the post-Yoritomo era. Japan is a very test-oriented society, and one of the skills students pick up is getting very good at how to study for tests, something I see in my son as he prepares for the next level of the Step Test, a standardized English test that's popular here. My son is twelve and will be a teenager soon. I know this because he recently asked me what the words BRB, LOL, and ROTFL meant.

Yasukuni Shrine, the shrine in Tokyo that honors Japan's war dead, is controversial because the bones of Japan's former military leaders are also interred there, including the head honcho himself, wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. For years no one thought anything about the shrine, until the 1980s when China and South Korea started objecting to Japan's prime ministers making official visits there, partially (some might argue) to reap the political benefits gained from stirring up anti-Japanese sentiment at home. Yesterday former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui made a visit to the shrine. He stressed that the visit, which was to honor his older brother who died in the war, was as a private individual, but the image of a former leader of an Asian country going to Yasukuni was too much for Beijing to take without voicing strong protest.

I'm sure you've all had the experience of being called home on short notice to participate in a Shinto ceremony in your living room. This happened to me yesterday -- we're about to start some remodelling in our house, redoing our bathrooms and replacing our older, allergy-unfriendly tatami mats with Okinawa-style square mats, and as is the custom here, we called our neighborhood Shinto priest out to bless the house before starting the construction. Since I am the "big black pillar" (daikoku-bashira) of the family, my wife wanted me to attend the ceremony. The priest had spread out an offering consisting of several icons of the Shinto religion, including fish, rice, clean water, oranges, a daikon radish and sake, and proceeded to bless the house and its inhabitants. Shinto is the original religion of Japan, which reveres the spirits (kami) in mountains, rivers and trees, and as a general rule, ceremonies related to life, such as baby naming or weddings, are derived from it, while Buddhism is reserved for death-related events. The Shinto priest who performed the home-blessing ceremony was the same one who did the ground-breaking ceremony when we started construction of the J-List office a decade ago. and he was fascinated with how far our little company had come, bringing Japanese products to people all around the world. (I told him we were lucky to have great customers.)

YUME MIRU KUSURI :: A Drug That Makes You Dream is the newest English-translated dating-sim game from Peach Princess, and an outstanding game it is, with rich and complex characters like the grown-up class president Mizuki, slightly spaced out transfer student Aeka, and the mysterious cat girl Nekoko. If you've been sitting on the fence about this beautiful game, we're happy announce a great new playable demo that lets you interact with the world and its characters before deciding if this title is for you. The demo is "all ages" and can be freely distributed. If you've always wondered what all the fuss about Japan's dating-sim games was, this is a great opportunity for you!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

More ways that Japanese group dynamics operate, linguistic land mines, and how to really appreciate Pop Tarts and Peanut Butter

I talked last time about some of the mechanisms that are in place to keep Japan's group-oriented society running smoothly, and I've witnessed various forms of "wa maintenance" as an English teacher. Now, Japanese who go all-out to master English can sometimes be a little odd, and we had one very smart student at our school named K who was sure the best approach to learning the language was to memorize the dictionary page by page. When she got a wrong answer in class she would slap herself loudly, and then there was her unfortunate habit of trimming her nails by peeling them by hand, sometimes until they were bloody. I watched for months as the other members of the class took great pains to make K feel like part of the group, eating lunch with her and looking the other way when she did something strange. One day she made an especially embarrassing goof then made it worse by slapping herself repeatedly, which looked so ridiculous that the other students couldn't stand it any more and burst out laughing. I could tell they'd tried hard to keep the poor girl from feeling bad, but we all have our limits. Actually everyone seemed to be better friends after the incident.

Every language has certain built-in traps which will invariably be stepped on by learners coming in from other languages. Tomo told me once he's terrified of using a perfectly good word for "cat" because of his fear that it will be confused with an anatomically descriptive slang word, and when Yasu was studying in Philadelphia, he tried to use the word "Bro" with his friends, but they mis-heard this as "bra." Another famous problem area are the L/R pronunciation issues, since the two sounds aren't differentiated in Japanese, and I've known people who avoid talking about politics so they wouldn't have to try to pronounce the word "election." But gaijin aren't immune to these linguistic land mines just because the tables are turned. The word seiko can mean many things depending what kanji you write it with. The most common meaning is "to succeed" (成功) or in the case of the famous watch company, "minute engineering" (精工), but one kanji combination results in an academic-sounding word for copulation (性行), and for years I was scared to utter the word "succeed" in Japanese because I thought I might be mis-understood. In Japanese, the only "bad" word (as in, so bad you'd get in trouble of you used it on TV) is similar to the word "mango" but with a "k" replacing the "g," and it's the rare foreigner who can avoid making a Freudian slip when ordering mango juice from a pretty waitress. It's easy enough avoid using the word, of course, but sometimes it pops up at you unexpectedly. The number 10,000 is "mahn" and the counter for small or round objects is "ko," so if you find plan on talking about, say, 10,000 gumballs in Japanese you might want to be careful.

If you really want to value the things you have, try going to a place where they don't exist. I love living in Japan and everyday is fun, but there are many things you just can't find here, from "real" Peanut Butter to Pop Tarts to fat-free Triscuit crackers to any type of bread other than "white." When I'm in the U.S., I go out of my way to enjoy these things, and I've been known to choose lowly Miller Lite over more exotic choices mainly because of the natsukashii (NOTS-ka-SHEE, nostalgia) factor. During the Star Wars convention we went for some cheeseburgers at our hotel, and the menu offered many exotic types of cheese for my burger, from Gouda to Provolone to Havarti. But all I really wanted was good old American cheese, all but impossible to find in Japan, which prefers sliced white mozzarella (zzzzz). I'm a big proponent of the idea of sending all college-age people to another country to live for a year. If nothing else, they'll realize how good they've got it at home.

Remember that J-List carries over 4000 unique products from Japan, from the traditional to the curious to the just plain weird. Since J-List is located in Japan, we've always got lots of authentic items that will amaze you, and probably teach you about Japan just a little, too. There are several ways to view the products J-List offers, including browsing categories, searching for keywords, viewing products updated in the past three days, viewing all products in order of last updating, or using our handy text-tree view. You can also use our newly-revamed RSS feeds to watch J-List for the new information using services like Newsgator or Google Reader -- see for a complete listing of RSS feeds

Monday, June 04, 2007

Understanding group culture through photography, all about Social Security in Japan, and would you like "lice" with your bento?

The Japanese are a very group-oriented people, and one of the worst things a person can be is nakama-hazure (nah-kah-mah HAH-zoo-reh), meaning "being left out of the group," i.e. an outsider. It's funny to see some of the social mechanisms that are in place to keep groups of people functioning happily. For example, if you watch Japanese taking group photographs, they'll usually take two, so that the person holding the camera the first time can get in the second picture, and no one feels left out of the group by not being in every shot. This little ceremony is very important -- if, say, the owner of the camera were to suggest that the second picture wasn't necessary, perhaps to save film, he'd basically be putting the circle of friends at risk by allowing the implication that every member of the group wasn't as important as all the others to stand, a psychological dynamic that certainly would be rare to see in the U.S. Although you don't think of a family as an in-group, it's certainly possible to be nakama-hazure even with people you share the same home with, something my Japanese wife has learned as she watches our kids get better and better at English. Sometimes we play cruel tricks on her at the dinner table, asking if she'd like more "lice" and smirking when she says yes.

Most industrialized countries are struggling with the aging of their societies, and with its very low birth rate, Japan generally leads the pack. There are two systems that provide health insurance and retirement income in Japan, the Social Insurance System (available to any employee of a medium-sized or larger company, and their families) and the National Insurance System (available to everyone else, including self-employed). Both systems work fairy well, covering 70% of medical costs and providing a basis for Japanese retirees to live. Oddly, although everyone is ostensibly required to pay into the local version of Social Security, there are no penalties for not doing so, and many Japanese don't bother with the system at all. This includes some politicians, which caused a scandal that ended several careers a few years ago. Currently Japan's Social Security system is in hot water after losing data on up to 50 million citizens who paid into the system over the past twenty years, including that of yours truly -- we recently asked for a report on the payments I'd made when I was teaching ESL and were told they didn't have me in their computer. It turns out that a change in the number used to track these payments caused information on millions to disappear, causing extra retirement headaches for many.

Bento, Japan's visually beautiful boxed lunch, has become a famous image of the country throughout the world, and very popular with J-List customers, too. The Japanese have a tradition called shoku no bi, or "the beauty of food," and many dishes are aesthetically pleasing to look at as well as being delicious. In keeping with this great concept, bento becomes much more than something you eat at lunchtime. It can be an art form, as wives and mothers show their creativity each day with fun and delicious new ways of cutting sausages into little flowers or crabs or octopi. Eating a boxed lunch that your wife or mother has put a lot of effort into can really make a person try extra hard at work or school, and it's not uncommon for bento to include the word GANBATTE! (gahn-BAH-teh, meaning "Please work hard!") spelled out in cut nori seaweed. Ultimately, bento can be an expression of love in a country where married couples might spend their entire lives together without ever saying "I love you" to each other, and the image of a young salaryman eating his aisai bento (or "loving wife bento") is extremely romantic.