Friday, June 29, 2007

Getting ready for Anime Expo, all about Japanese name endings, tips on gift-giving, and thoughts on Japan and the iPhone

Most people know that the Japanese put the ending -san on the end of names for politeness. There are quite a lot of similar name ending suffixes, including -kun (usually used for males who you're friends with, or all male children), or -sensei (used for teachers, doctors or anyone else you want to show respect for, including politicians). One of the more common name endings is -chan, an extremely cute suffix that gets added to girls' names, especially children or females you have a close relationship with, or sometimes boy children who are especially young and cute. But linguistic rules were made to be broken, and it's common for this suffix to be used in some of the most likely places, such as Shuwa-chan, the universal nickname for Arnold Schwarzenegger in Japan.

If you ever visit Japan, it's good manners to bring a gift, called "omiyage" (oh-mee-YAH-gay) to Japanese you will be visiting or who you might encounter. Some items, like boxes of chocolates, beef jerky, and macadamia nuts from Hawaii are so famous that they're almost cliched, but will still be appreciated by anyone who receives them from you. Yasu recommends you bring some items that Americans take for granted but which Japanese might find quite unique, like A-1 Steak Sauce, candy like jellybeans or gummy bears, tortilla chips and salsa, or "that Tabasco sauce that isn't Tabasco" (we're pretty sure he means Cholula pepper sauce, which isn't sold in Japan and is thus very exotic). I think anything from your part of the world would make a good gift, and if your city or state is famous for something, a gift along those lines is a good idea. If the people you'll be visiting like coffee, you might consider a large bag of Starbucks beans, since it's quite expensive to buy here. Finally, most people don't consider cigarettes as good for gift-giving, but Yasu says that Japanese who smoke would love a carton of Newport, which aren't sold in Japan. One word of warning: giving gifts can expose you to a "gift war" in which you end up getting many more gifts than you can need, as Japanese are very serious about o-kaeshi, or giving a return gift when they receive one. The best advice is to position your own present as a return gift for something others have done for you, which will avoid a return gift on the return gift.

Friday is the "iDay," when Apple's iPhone is finally released, so I thought I'd talk about some differences between cell phones in the U.S. an Japan. Japan's cellular industry is dominated by NTT's behemoth Docomo, followed closely by "au by KDDI" and Softbank, the company owned by Yahoo Japan mogul Masayoshi Son, formerly the failed Vodafone. As the various cell phone companies jockey to bring the best products and services to their customers, they experiment with different phone concepts, but never sell a phone that any other company sells, thus each phone model is always "exclusive" to that provider. 3G is the rule in Japan, and speedy internet access through your phone is a great boon -- I like to connect to the net on my MacBook while speeding through the countryside on a bullet train, just because I can. Somehow Japan managed to build a competitive cell phone industry that never thought of requiring two year contracts, and these almost never exist (although changing your phone model within one year can cost you slightly more than if you do it less often). Also, receiving a call doesn't cost you minutes as it does in the U.S., which translates to lower costs for the user.

Well, we're here in Long Beach, all set up to start day one of Anime Expo. The show is looking to be a great festival of all things related to anime and Japanese pop culture, and we hope you'll be there to say hello. We're in booths 852, 854 and 856, near the back of the dealers' room -- come and visit us! Also, we've got a panel on the future of English bishoujo games Friday night at 7:30. Drop by for a free gift! Just in case you're not able to make it to the show, we've go a gift for you: free shipping on all bishoujo games this weekend only. This makes it a great time to pick up a great PC dating-sim game or four.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

On watching Shrek 2 in Osaka Dialect, frustration at the correct way to pronounce "Appatomatox" and thoughts on returning home

The other day I went into the living room to see my kids glued to the TV even though it was thirty minutes past their bedtime. They were watching Shrek 2 on Japanese television, which surprised me because like most kids aged 12 and 10, they'd seen the movie on DVD about a jillion times. "But this is in Japanese!" my daughter said. "It's so funny -- Shrek is speaking Osaka-ben!" This is the dialect of Osaka, about as different-sounding to the ear from "standard" Tokyo speech as New York or Massachusetts English sounds compared to standard American English, defined as whatever the newscasters speak, since we don't officially tie our language standard to a physical location like many other countries. Osaka-ben (or more accurately, Kansai-ben) is the dialect of laughter, and it seems that virtually all comedians in Japan are fluent in it; Tokyo's dialect is much less colorful, more "we're not gonna fall for the banana in the tailpipe." The added flavor of the Osaka dialect added humor to Shrek's jokes and made the film more interesting for Japanese viewers.

How you pronounce Appatomatox, the town where the American Civil War officially ended? Or Diplodocus, one of the largest dinosaurs to ever walk the Earth? These two words are among hundreds of others that are nearly impossible to say correctly until you've heard them spoken by others. "Pneumonia" was another hard one for me, and for some reason, it took me eighteen years to learn that you don't pronounce the "p." Although there are plenty of pronunciation issues in Japanese -- it can be very difficult to read certain kanji characters, unique names of people or place names from Northern Japan, which usually derive from the Ainu language -- at least words written in katakana can always be pronounced more-or-less spot-on because the system is syllable-based. I've heard many anime fans pronounce Evangelion with a soft "g" as in "angel." While this is understandable given the abundance of angels in the series, the katakana doesn't lie: the correct pronunciation is evan-GELL-ee-on, with a hard "g."

Once again I've made the very long jump between Japan and the U.S., and have had to force myself to switch gears from "Japan" to "America" mode. I've flitted between the two countries so often that it becomes second nature, although driving on the other side of the street always takes some care -- remember, always make sure you, the driver, are nearer to the center of the road than your passenger, no matter what country you're in. Right now I'm attempting an experiment involving massive jet lag, a bottle of Bass Ale and some interesting color hallucinations. I'm in the U.S., of course, for the upcoming Anime Expo event June 29-July 2 in Long Beach, which is going to be a huge party. We hope you'll be at the show, and look forward to seeing you there! If you can't make it, remember that J-List is always online, operating 24/7 to make sure you never want for anything wacky or cool from Japan.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Japan's latest "boom" is Tae Bo, all about the Three Great Unifiers of Japan, and managing by studying Japanese history

Japan is the land of the boom, and you never know what will be popular next. Right now the country is experiencing a "Tae Bo Boom" as Billy Blanks makes a visit to the country to promote his line of "tae kwon-do + boxing" workout videos. There's something about Japan that makes them go especially ga-ga when foreign celebrities visit, and Billy was getting star treatment as he made an appearance on a TBS morning "wide show" that's roughly a local version of Good Morning America. Showing off for the camera, he modified his training workout so that instead of lifting weights, he was lifting the tiny body of the female Japanese announcer who was interviewing him.

The Japanese like to quantify things with numbers, and you often hear about things like the "three most beautiful views of Japan" or "the three famous tea gardens of Japan." Similarly, when you study Japanese history you come across the "three unifiers" of the country. During the Sengoku (Warring States) Period of the 16th Century, Japan was a patchwork of separate domains of feudal lords fighting against each other for power, with the ultimate goal of forcing the Emperor to name them Shogun or "supreme military general" over the whole nation. The first unifier was Nobunaga Oda, who conquered the provinces starting with the Nagoya area until a third of the country was controlled by him; he also supported the arts, and was a fan of sumo wrestling tournaments. Then came Hideyoshi Toyotomi, unique in Japanese history because he started out as a peasant, rising in Nobunaga's army to become the most powerful man in Japan, although his reign ended with just one generation. Finally there was Ieyasu Tokugawa, who founded a 15-generation dynasty of shoguns that brought 250 years of peace and unique cultural growth known as the Edo Period.

Just as you can buy books that tell you how to manage your company using the Captain Piccard "Make It So" Method or live your life by the Tao of Pooh, these three unifiers of Japanese history have inspired many ideas on business and personal philosophy over the years. Nobunaga was famous for being calculating in everything he did, and if you manage yourself using the Nobunaga Method you divorce yourself from emotion and calmly do what needs to be done in any situation. Hideyoshi was a very social person, able to "grind the sesame seeds of" (i.e., flatter) anyone, so if you live your life by the Hideyoshi Principle you maintain close relationships with those around you for everyone's mutual benefit. Hideyoshi was pragmatic, too: although he managed to climb to the top of Japan's ruling class from poverty, he established the four-class social system (samurai, farmers, artisans, merchants) that effectively kept anyone from the lower classes from following in his footsteps. Finally, if you subscribe to the Ieyasu Way, you probably balance boldness with caution, and work to build a big tent, as Ieyasu did when he allowed his former enemies to keep their fiefs after he defeated them at the Battle of Sekigahara (1600). You probably stress long-term planning for the future, too. Soon after Ieyasu was named Shogun, he abdicated to his son in order to help him lay the groundwork for the future success of the family. When he established his city in Edo (Tokyo), he supposedly did so because it lied in a "lucky" direction in relation to the capital of Kyoto according to a feng shui-like belief system popular in Japan. Some believe that Tokyo's circular Yama-no-te train line and the Chuo line that curves through it (both based on old road systems dating back several centuries) crate a yin-yang symbol, with Tokyo's administrative offices and the Imperial Castle forming the dots, to increase the fortunes of the nation..

Every year J-List is fortunate to be able to participate in some of the best anime conventions in the U.S., and we'll be at the upcoming Anime Expo (June 29-July 2), greeting our customers and showing our many fun and wacky products from Japan. This show is really the seminal annual event for fans of animation and Japanese pop culture, and this year is going to be a blast, with dozens of guests from Japan including Gackt, the Haruhi voice actresses and many more. If you'll be at the show, please come by booths 852, 854 and 856 and say hello! (And don't forget our dating-sim game panel on the first evening of the show, we'll have some great news for you there.)