Friday, June 22, 2007

Our plan to "reform" our home in Japan, the joys of getting citizenship, and times when Japan just throws you for a loop

Our plan to "reform" (remodel) our house in Japan is continuing apace, as we prepare to redo our bath area, enlarge our living room slightly and make the downstairs more "barrier free" for my wife's elderly parents. As is the practice here, we made sure to start the bath part of the construction on one of the "lucky days" according to a Buddhist calendar designated for this purpose. This is especially important because mizu-mawari (parts of the house related to water) have a lot to do with a family's good luck, for reasons that are beyond this poor gaijin's ability to comprehend. The construction is being done by Japanese carpenters who are coincidentally called "dykes" (daiku). One of the rules about getting any kind of contracting work in Japan done is, you're supposed to bring the workers drinks and cakes at 10 am and 3 pm, which helps to help ensure they do a good job on our house.

There's no doubt about it: sometimes Japan can really throw you for a loop. Like the occasional intersection that will show drivers a red light along along with green arrows pointing left, right and up, guaranteeing confusion for everyone. Then there's this Japanese friend of mine who loves old American World War II movies set in the Pacific theatre, despite the presumably negative light these films put the Japanese in -- and ditto for fans of Breakfast at Tiffany's, which features an embarrassingly stereotyped Japanese character played by Mickey Rooney. Japanese sometimes choose names that we'd never consider using in the West, like the rock band Yellow Monkey or the popular talent agency Yellow Cab. The Japanese are a very polite people, and it's actually possible to hear a fight between an older person (senpai) and his underling (kohai) in which the younger person is using polite speech even while he yells at the top of his lungs. Finally, one of the oddest things I've seen all week: Astro Boy's Japanese name is Tetsuwan Atom, literally "Iron-Armed Atom" (which I knew), but it turns out his sister Astro Girl's name in Japanese is Uran, which means "uranium." When I heard this it seemed like some kind of twisted, black joke, coming just seven years after the bombing of Hiroshima, but if the Japanese are okay with the names, I guess it's okay with me.

Taking citizenship of another country is a very special thing -- it means that you've accepted the language, history, culture and values of your adopted nation and are willing to be counted as one of their number for the rest of your life. Although it's one of the most homogeneous places on Earth, foreigners may take Japanese nationality if they meet certain reasonable requirements, including having lived in Japan continuously for five years and having at least basic ability in the language. Athletes often take Japanese citizenship for one reason or another, such as the Hawaiian or Mongolian sumo wrestlers or Brazilian soccer player Alessandro Santos, and the richest man in Japan is a naturalized citizen, too, Yahoo Japan mogul Masayoshi Son, of Korean descent. I'm often asked by J-List customers if I've gotten my Japanese citizenship yet, and I tell them no, I'm quite happy with the permanent residence status I've got now. I'd like to extend congratulations to Carlos, the hardworking J-List employee in our San Diego office who hand prints our cool Japanese T-shirts and hoodies. He's worked very hard to get his U.S. citizenship over the past five years, and today he officially becomes an American citizen.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Dire straights for the Nova Bunny, Japanese test culture and manga artists, and all about Japanese democracy

The teaching of eikaiwa, or English conversation, is quite an industry in Japan, and there are many schools where people of all ages can learn the language, usually for around $100 a month for four weekly lessons. Although there are many small schools offering ESL, usually also operating after-hours tutoring schools (juku) on the side, the market tends to be dominated by the chains of English schools like Aeon, Geos, ECC, and the largest, Nova. These large schools promise "a study-abroad experience right in front of your local train station," a tempting proposition for the estimated 1 million Japanese wanting to practice speaking English with a native speaker. Although I've had teacher friends who had good experiences working for companies like Nova, when J-List readers have asked for information on teaching in Japan I've generally steered them away from these "McEnglish" chains. The business practices of the schools often leave a lot to be desired, including overworking teachers and keeping them on short-term contracts unnecessarily, and structuring "discounts" for students that result in them signing unbreakable contracts for 2-3 years of lessons. Now it seems the bad karma of the school is coming back to bite it on its pink rabbit ears, as the government has ordered them to stop signing up new customers for six months as penalty for their past misdeeds. (Of course, I have an only slightly outdated guide for anyone wanting to know more about teaching here.)

In Japan, they do like to take tests, and you can find standardized exam- inations for just about everything, including English, Kanji, using an abacus, entering prices in a cash register in a supermarket, and even for using the Internet, a test called ".Com Master." The Japanese use these tests to improve themselves and pad their resumes, and for the most part I've seen that Japan's test culture has had a good effect on people overall, although my son quit our city's skiing club because he got tired of their incessant focus on preparing for the next level of the National Skiing Skill Examination, which has something like 11 levels to it. As the Japanese government comes to the realization that manga and anime are perhaps the country's greatest cultural export, there's been more focus on nurturing the artists that create the works that interest so many around the world. To that end, there's now an official Manga Creators Ability Test, which covers creation of characters, stories and skills as an assistant to a professional artist, at several different levels. Last week six hundred would-be manga-ka (comic artists) took the test for the first time, pitting their skills against each other while professional artists judged. I wonder if a future CLAMP or Rumiko Takahashi was among the test-takers?

Japan is a Parliamentary Democracy that takes its structure mostly from that other famous island nation, Great Britain. The national legislature of Japan is called the Diet, which is why Japanese people are so thin (ha-ha), and it's lead by a Prime Minister elected by the party or parties in power, currently a coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito. If you want to know a fun Japanese joke that will probably surprise the heck out of any Japanese who hear it, here it is: the word for Prime Minister is souri (pronounced "SOH-ree"), which sounds like the English word "sorry" to the Japanese. Sori, a similar-sounding word but with a shorter vowel at the front, means "razor." Japanese kids have a stupid saying that has endured for decades: "I'm sorry, hige sori [beard shaver], jori jori [the sound of rough, unshaven whiskers]." If you're ever talking to a Japanese person, and they apologize to you for something, come back at them with "I'm sorry, hige sori, jori jori!" [HEE-gay SOH-ree, JOE-ree JOE-ree] and watch the look of shock on their faces that anyone outside of Japan would know this.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The only country where eating quietly is strange, how ethanol can affect the price of soy sauce, and gaijin drinking rules

First of all, we had a problem with checkout on the J-List and JBOX.com websites that caused orders to not function for a few hours on Saturday. The error has been fixed, and anything saved in your shopping cart should still be there -- apologies on the problem. A related speed issue with the site (caused by some websites in China hotlinking to our images) has been fixed as well. It's amazing how easy it is to redirect those hotlinks to show some of the Internet's grossest images instead. ^_^

Japan is probably the only country where eating too quietly will get comments from people around you. The correct way of eating Japanese and Chinese noodles like ramen, udon and soba is to slurp them while holding your face near the bowl, sucking in the soup along with the noodles to make both taste delicious. There's no upper ceiling to how loud you're allowed to slurp, and making these noises is one way of letting whoever prepared the noodles for you know that you think they're good. When foreigners come to Japan, they usually eat their noodles without making these noises, prompting Japanese to say "Shizuka desu ne" (you eat very quietly). There are some other areas where table manners differ between the Japan and the West. Here, it's perfectly okay to pick up your ramen bowl and drink the soup from it directly, although drinking out of a bowl might get a child smacked back home. It's okay to slurp noodles, but spaghetti is another matter, and the image of an old Japanese man loudly vacuuming his pasta off the plate is very unsophisticated. Some table manner no-no's are related to Buddhism, including the tabboo against sticking chopsticks straight up in rice or handing food to someone else chopsticks-to- chopsticks (both of which are part of funeral ceremonies here).

Slurping noodles

The world economy is complex, and just like the butterfly that flaps its wings which causes a hurricane on the other side of the world, you can't change one part of it without potentially messing up things elsewhere. As the cost of oil rises, there's been lots of interest in using ethanol from corn or sugar as an alternate fuel, and the trend of farmers switching to producing these crops has had the unfortunate effect of causing the price of soybeans, so important for Japanese foods like miso soup, tofu and natto, to rise. As with Europe, Japanese consumers are very wary of genetically modified foods of any kind, which puts additional pressure on one of Japan's primary staple foods, raising the price even further.

Whenever foreigners living in Japan go drinking, they must make a decision: will they pour drinks for each other in Japanese style, or will everyone pour their own drinks like the folks back home do? Drinking is a very social activity in Japan, and there are many customs about pouring beer for each other, starting with the highest ranking member of the group (the senpai, the boss, etc.). Pouring drinks for each other helps increase the fuzzy feeling you get when drinking with friends, and it brings down the barriers that exist between coworkers, too, enabling them to communicate openly in ways that could never be possible otherwise. If one of your group isn't keeping up with the others, you can keep refilling his glass until he's nicely buzzed; in the event that he doesn't want to drink any more, he can just keep the glass full as a signal that he's not drinking right now. It's considered bad form to pour one's own beer, called "tejaku," the sign of someone who is lonely or possibly drinking more than he should.

Remember that J-List stocks hundreds of fun toys sold in the domestic Japanese market, including "Gashapon" or "capsule toys" that come in plastic eggs or similar packaging. These fun toys are great because they're inexpensive, and come in many great styles, from super-detailed minature trading figures (Bleach, Evangelion, Macross) to miniaturized Japanese food or household items (those amazing toys by Re-Ment) to the downright bizarre (miniature packages of Natto and Tofu, "trading torso" figures) and more. J-List goes the extra mile for our customers by offering both full set and random individual items so you can get exactly what you want.