Friday, July 06, 2007

The lack of patriotic songs in Japan, what happened in our prefecture during WWII, and a useful word for Atari fans

The Fourth of July celebration was a lot of fun, a rare treat for me since Anime Expo usually falls across the holiday. I decided to take J-List's manga and photobook-meister Yasu (who was heading home the next day) to see the fireworks over San Diego Harbor, so we headed for the beautiful Coronado Bay Bridge, one of the most famous symbols of America's Finest City. They were great, especially with the accompanying patriotic music on the radio. This led to an interesting study in comparative culture for us: there is no "patriotic" music in Japan, no way to express the love of one's own country through music. The nearest thing Japan has to "America The Beautiful" or "Yankee Doodle" are gunka (goon-KA), dreary military songs that were used to rouse patriotic spirit during World War II, like the famous ditty "Monday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Friday," about a bronzed sailor breathing in the salty sea air as he polishes the guns on his battleship. After the war ended, Japan understandably moved away from these wartime hymns, and now they're exclusively the domain of right-wing nuts who drive around in big loudspeaker trucks blasting the songs in everyone's eardrums (they also play the Space Battleship Yamato theme song from time to time, which always brings a tear to my eye, but for different reasons than they intend). This is roughly equivalent to the KKK taking over "This Land Is Your Land," and I wish Japanese would get upset about it. But if you know anything about Japan, you know their mantra is sho ga nai or "it can't be helped," and thus no one feels the need to change anything.

Speaking of the war, I've always been interested in the experiences of Japanese in my (adopted) home prefecture of Gunma during World War II, and during the months I worked as my city's "Facilitator of Internationalization" (whatever that means), I took the time to look up some local history of those sad years. The end of the war, of course, saw bombing of many Japanese cities, and Gunma was no different. In nearby Ota there's a really long, straight road that's famous because it was the former runway for a major airbase during the war before it was bombed flat, an interesting bit of local trivia. My wife's father was just five when he heard the sound of the B-29's coming to bomb the Fuji Heavy Industries factory in our city -- it was wiped out but rebuilt, and they make Subaru cars there now. Our prefectural capital of Maebashi was bombed on August 5, just ten days before the end of the war, although the city's lone Catholic church miraculously emerged unscathed. Many Japanese were called away to fight in the war, and sadly, many would not come home. Those who did return, like Yasu's grandfather, are considered lucky, and people still hammer off chips of his family grave to share in some of that good luck. Of course, some didn't leave to fight in the war at all, like my wife's grandfather, who faked an injury by jumping off the roof of his house to avoid serving in the army.

If you want to experience the difference between war and peace, check these two movies out. One is the original "Monday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Friday" song:

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Being sick in Japan and America, the concept of "political correctness" in Japanese, and all about Japan's famous alcoholic drink, sake

Japan is a fun place -- the people are nice, the sights are beautiful, and you get to have wacky "gaijin experiences" like seeing a sign on a train that says "Beware of Perverts" or "It Is Forbidden To Urinate Here" on a dark street. But no matter how much I like the place, getting sick in Japan just sucks, especially if I don't have a cache of American medicine like Nyquil, Advil, Alka-Seltzer Plus, Dimetapp and other cures made for my big gaijin body on hand. In addition to U.S. medicines being stronger than their Japanese counterparts, there's another difference: Japanese medicine bottles aren't required to have child-proof caps on them. As a result, Japanese almost never know how to open a cap from the U.S., and I usually have to step in and help my wife when she's trying to get a bottle open. Sadly, I've managed to catch a bit of a bug on the last day of Anime Expo. I'm still hoping I can recover enough to enjoy my first real Fourth of July in San Diego in years, but for now I'm going to bang the update out to everyone and head to bed.

Sooner or later, concepts that we take for granted in the West pop up in Japan, including what some might call "political correctness." Over the past few years, Japan has been renaming some job titles that had a sexist slant due to the kanji they were written with. For example, the old word for a preschool teacher, hobo (literally "protecting mother," not related to how it sounds in English) has been updated to hoikushi ("care-giver"), and the former term for nurse (kangofu, written with characters that meant "nursing wife") is now kangoshi, which makes no reference to male or female. Some words haven't been updated yet, though. A family with only one parent is often called boshi katei which literally means "household of mother and child," but this word doesn't serve its purpose very well if the single parent is male. And Japanese who spend several years overseas then return to Japan are called kikoku shijo or "a girl-child who has returned to their home country." The term is used for males as well as females, despite the fact that the "girl" meaning is built into the word via kanji characters.

Sake (pronounced sah-KAY, with an accent over the second syllable), is the famous Japanese wine made from rice, what my grandfather used to call "saki." One of the most popular alcoholic drinks in Japan, sake is enjoyed by millions of tired salarymen after a hard day's work every day. Just like there are many kinds of wine in the world, there's a lot of variety in types of sake, from dry to sweet, aged with some very high-priced brands of jizake (local sake, made only in one part of the country) out there. Among the more popular brands of sake are Ozeki, Shirayuki and Akagi (the latter is made in our home prefecture of Gunma), but the most famous sake of all is Koshi no Kambai, a popular brand from Niigata Prefecture, which as I'm sure you're aware is the "rice basket" of Japan. In addition to referring to rice wine, the word sake (often with the honorific "o" placed in front of it, o-sake) is a catch-all for any kind of alcohol, just as the Japanese word for rice, gohan, can stand in for any kind of meal.

We've got some great new and restocked items for you today, including a big treat for Ghibli fans, Tales of Earthsea, the newest animated film from Japan's most celebrated animation studio. We've got both of the standard and limited editions of the film, we're happy to let you know that the discs are provided with full English subtitles and dubbed tracks, all optional of course. Check it out now!

Other great new items for you include new and restocked items, including great anime figures (including El designed by Yoshinori Tatake), more cool Hello Kitty items like the Animal Bobble Heads or the "Pass the Test" good luck charm for anyone studying or striving to meet a goal, great Tales from Earthsea toys, fun and wacky ways to clean your ears in Japan style, more bento related items, keychains featuring famous symbols of Japan, great pens from Japan, restocked snacks including Shigekix and Rock-Paper-Scissors Gummy, and wacky "Watering Kiss Mint Gum," if you know what that is, and a bunch of 18+ items too.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Anime Expo update, advice on traveling in Japan, on the idea of Japan as "#81" and two words every pop Japanologist must know

We're still here at Anime Expo in Long Beach, and it's been a real blast. Monday is the last day of the show, so if you'll be around, come on by! Just look for the really big banners featuring our official mascot, whose name is Megumi-chan, in case you were curious.

Japan is an expensive place, and travelling here can quickly add up to a lot of money. I once took my family to Kyoto for a few days and managed to spend enough for all of us to fly to Europe instead -- ouch. However, there are still plenty of ways to make a trip to Japan affordable. First of all, be sure to make use of the Japan Rail Pass discount tickets, which let you go anywhere on Japan's speedy bullet trains for a very affordable fee. (Poor Japan-bound gaijin like me don't get to buy these, as they're only for visitors from outside the country.) All Japanese cities have affordable youth hostels where you can stay for around $30 a night, more or less. You also might try what I've done in the past, staying in capsule hotels -- you're sure to have an unforgettable experience, sleeping in those tiny cubbyholes. Guidebooks like Lonely Planet are useful, but a word of warning: if you locate accommodations using these books, be prepared to find yourself staying at a traditional ryokan filled with other foreign tourists, all clutching copies of the same guidebook. Avoid this by trying a Japanese minshuku, a kind of Japanese-style bed-and-breakfast where you can enjoy the hospitality of the owner and meet locals also traveling on the cheap.

Everyone naturally views the world from the viewpoint of their own culture, and many people consider their country to be "best," at least on some level. But while many Japanese view the world from the standpoint of their own culture, I don't think I've met one who thinks that Japan is "#1" in the world. "Everyone knows that America is number one," a guy drinking next to me once said. "Japan is number 81." While he was making a joke about the international code used to call Japan, I think that certain Japanese, especially members of the older generation who experienced defeat by the Allies and the kids raised by them, have a bit of a complex about the U.S. and Europe, and naturally assume that their own culture is inferior to the greatness of the West. This is part of the reason why Japan's government is happy to take its cues mostly from the U.S. and Britain, to introduce their own "Big Bang" banking reform program only after the U.K. rolled out their own program, or to name the retirement investment system used in Japan "the Japan 401(k)." Just once, it'd be interesting to see a major idea put forth by Japan's government, which would be studied and adopted by the West, instead of the other way around.

I'd be remiss in my discussions about Japan if I didn't bring up two core concepts any pop Japanoligist needs to know: tatemae and honne (TAH-tay- MAH-ae and HON-neh), two concepts which are woven into the fabric of Japan as a nation. Tatemae could be translated as the ideas expressed in public, or the way we pretend society is, while honne is the way we really feel, or the way the world really is. Often tatemae are the things you say to people in certain social situations, even though you don't feel that way inside. When I see my English-bilingual wife talking with the other mothers at my daughter's school, I can see some this idea in action: she has to hold her own opinions back much of the time and pretend to agree with the other mothers who have never been outside of Japan, lest she stand out too much. Tatemae can also exist in the society at large. For example, gambling is illegal in Japan, so you win "prizes" at Pachinko parlors, which you "sell" for money at small shops located conveniently next door. Prostitution is also illegal, yet there are "soaplands" where a beautiful girl will give you a full body wash in a bath (including one in Shibuya, located right behind a police station). And on Tokyo's busy Kan-Nana Bypass, the speed limit is a meager 40 kph (24 mph), but anyone actually going that speed would surely cause an accident -- so everyone speeds along at 90 kph (55 mph). Tatemae are the little white lies we live with every day, and honne are what is really in our hearts. Do you have tatemae and honne in your life?

Various images from the con, since you've all been so patient. (I get a little busy at these things.)

It's always cool to see our customers wearing our shirts. This is our popular "Baka Gaijin" shirt design.

Eva cosplay was quite popular. Is she doing Mikuru Beam?

Another cosplayer, very cute.

Maruchan ramen??

The big highlight was ducking out to wait in line (and wait) for the Haruhi voice actress concert. Seeing Aya Hirano up close and personal was great. She's so cute she should be an anime voice actress or something. To see what she looks like, click here.