Friday, July 13, 2007

Friday the 13th and superstitions from Japan, thoughts on how to approach learning, and my take on Heroes and Japanese actors

Hello and happy Friday the 13th, often considered to be a day of good luck in Japan, since many festivals begin on the 13th of the month. Superstitions are often a big part of life in Japan, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to share some of them with you. First, never cut your fingernails at night, or you won't be able to be with your parents when they die -- an interesting Buddhist twist on "step on a crack," I guess. Whistling at night is out, too, unless you want snakes to pay you a visit. The number 13 is considered unlucky in the West, but in Japan the number to avoid is 4, due to the fact that the number, read shi in Japanese, also means "death" (airline counters omit both numbers for good measure). When you buy a new pair of shoes, be sure not to wear them for the first time when it's raining, or else every time you put those shoes on it will rain. Superstitions about salt are apparently common all around the world, too -- in Japan it's sprinkled over the body to purify you before entering your home after attending a funeral, which keeps dead spirits from inhabiting your house, or something like that.

Learning a foreign language is a difficult prospect. Modern teaching methods make it easier, of course, using approaches such as the Communicative Method (learning using communication-centric activities rather than, say, rote memorization of grammar) or the Natural Approach (mimicking how children acquire language by building listening skills and vocabulary before they start to produce speech). The way information is organized is important, too. For example, one area of English that's especially challenging for foreigners are two-part idiomatic verbs, which embed complex meaning in very simple words, and it makes sense for students of English to tackle these problems as a group. What's the difference between sleep over or oversleep? Act up and act out? Are drop in and drop out opposites? I had a Japanese friend who drank too much and proclaimed she was about to "throw off" -- then she couldn't understand why everyone was rolling on the floor laughing at her goof. Grouping linguistic concepts can help for students of Japanese, too. For example, a lot of words in Japanese incorporate no ko (child of...) and it can help to learn these together. A mushroom is a kinoko (child of a tree), bamboo sprout is takenoko (child of bamboo), caviar/fish roe is kazunoko (child of cod), and the powdered vinegar you sprinkle over rice when making sushi is known as....sushinoko (child of sushi). Learning them together like that makes them more likely to "stick" in your brain.

I'm currently hooked on Heroes, the NBC show that puts a new spin on the idea of comic book-style super powers. It's a lot of fun in part because of the two characters who speak Japanese throughout the story, including Hiro Nakamura, the clock-watching salaryman who developed the ability to stop time. It's great to be watching a story involving actual Japanese people, since it's all too common to see Koreans or Korean Americans playing Japanese roles, like Linda Park as Hoshi Sato on Enterprise or Sung Kang in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift -- the unspoken implication is that Japanese are so bad at English that Koreans must step in and portray them on film. Although Heroes show does a great job at showing the Japanese side of the characters accurately (including my mon George Takei, he don't shiv), for the record I've yet to meet a single Japanese person who makes Star Trek cultural references in his speech. It'd be much more common for the average Japanese on the street to utter, say, the famous line that Kenshiro of Fist of the North Star says before he kills an enemy -- "You are already dead!" / Omae wa mo, shinderu -- than to ask Scottie to beam them up. But that's just me being pedantic again.

J-List has been involved in licensing and translating Japan's unique PC dating-sim games for a long time -- an incredible *ten years* in fact, a full decade of helping fans enjoy these amazing story- and character-based love sims games in English. To celebrate this special event, we're announcing a limited edition JAST USA Memorial Trading Card collection, a series of 55 beautifully printed laminated plastic cards depicting scenes from the great English-language bishoujo games from G-Collections, Peach Princess and JAST USA. While supplies last, you'll get one of these beautiful foil-wrapped cards with each game purchased -- and if you're buying our download editions, you'll have the option of having the free card sent to you via postal mail for a nominal shipping fee. In addition to the cards, we've printed up some gorgeous bishoujo game posters with catalogs of our current and future titles on the other side, which you'll also get free with each order.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

On reverse culture shock, phases kids go through in Japan, and all about Japanese TV

It's always fun being back in the U.S., because I get to experience that rarest of sensations, reverse culture shock, when things I see in my home country surprise me because of my years spent in Japan. Today I caught a radio ad for AM/PM Mini Mart whose message was essentially that we should all live the "good life" and treat ourselves to a candy bar today, and that "more is more, at AM/PM." It was similar to the commercials from Taco Bell promoting "fourthmeal," a meal between dinner and breakfast that supposedly we should all be eating. Advertising approaches like this probably wouldn't fly in Japan, a country where bottled unsweetened oolong or green tea is preferred three to one over Coca Cola and where, when given a choice between small and large cans of canned coffee that cost the same money, many will pick the smaller can because that's all the coffee they feel like drinking just now. Even though I'm a big American, when I go to Wendy's I'm content to get the smallest Frosty they sell, which is bigger than the large at Wendy's in Tokyo.

bullet train

Raising kids in Japan is certainly an educational experience, and I've enjoyed watching my kids go through many phases in their lives so far. For my son, there was the fascination with Shinkansen trains that every Japanese boy goes through, and together we learned the names of all of them, from the blue and white Hikari that runs between Tokyo and Kyoto to the Tsubasa, the only bullet train that can run on normal tracks when needed. Around the age of eight he started his "bug phase," staying out for hours to catch beetles and keep them as pets -- his favorite was the Hercules Beetle, but I always liked the coloring of the classic scarabs. When Yu-Gi-Oh came along, my son turned his friends on to collecting the American cards, and they'd sit for hours comparing the differences between the Japanese and American versions. I wonder what his next phase will be?

Television in Japan is quite different from the U.S. First and foremost, there are a lot fewer channels to choose from in Japan, although more and more choices come along every year. The majority of television is provided by the "big five" commercial networks, Fuji TV, TBS, TV Asahi, Nippon TV and TV Tokyo, which create the sports, news, "doramas" (what Japanese TV dramas are usually called by fans, due to how the word is pronounced in Japanese) and anime programming that everyone enjoys watching. Japan is slowly switching from analog to digital broadcasting, and there are satellite and cable options, too. The past decade has seen a lot of investment from American companies, resulting in choices like local versions of Cartoon Network, the Discovery Channel and CNN International, and the cable-only version of Fox has been a big success as Japanese TV fans get hooked on U.S. shows. Not all of these television imports from the States have been welcome: lately it's hard to flip channels without running into lame American infomercials dubbed into Japanese, advertising exercise devices and weight loss gimicks and whatever. All things considered, I could do without that little piece of home.

J-List brings you many fun and wonderful products from Japan, including the super cute monster who happens to be the official mascot of Japan's public broadcasting network (NHK), Domo-kun. Today we've gotten in a cool new Domo-kin T-shirt for guys and girls, featuring an outlined version of our favorite monster. Check it out now!

Monday, July 09, 2007

More on the language of men and women, the Jerusalem of Otakuism, and all about sex and nudity in Japan (cool!)

There are subtle nuances in how we use language, and the speech we choose to use says something about all of us. In English, men and women speak differently in subtle ways, choosing varying words or inflections or coloring their speech differently (e.g. cursing, using feminine-sounding intonation, using less or more slang). In Japanese, the line between male and female speech is much more pronounced, with separate words for the first and second person, e.g. watashi as "I" for girls and the more masculine-sounding boku for boys. There are grammatical "particles" that go on the ends of sentences, too, stressing a statement or asking for agreement from other listeners, and several of these, such as wa (note, わ not は, i.e. the end-of-sentence wa, not the subject-marker wa, or the trendy-word-meaning-harmony wa either for that matter) or ne are generally used by women, or (don't ask me why) men from the Osaka region of Japan. The big challenge for male learners of Japanese is to find the right balance when speaking, to avoid picking up feminine Japanese (difficult when learning from female teachers/girlfriends/wives), while getting input in "male" Japanese that's right for your age (picking up slang from junior high school kids isn't much use when you're 35).

Last week there was a big demonstration in Tokyo's Akihabara region, with otakus of every creed, color and cosplay taking to the the streets to demand freedom to pursue their love of anime, manga and the related arts in their chosen homeland. The demonstration was lead by groups such as the Revolutionary Moeist Union -- who may or may not have been aware of the great joke they made using the word moe (萌え、mo-EH), roughly translatable as the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when contemplating your favorite anime or video game character -- and they were rallying against the recent otaku-unfriendly changes in Akihabara. Tokyo's plan to turn the area into a hip tourist spot has seen many large retailers moving in, including the mammoth Yodobashi Camera store that opened a few years back, pushing out smaller shops that catered to the "otaku spirit." Originally known as Tokyo's "Electric Town," Akihabara has grown beyond electronics to become the Mecca for everything from manga to anime to maid cafes to, well, mecha, and if there's a Jerusalem for anime fans, this is it. Indeed, the word "Akiba-kei" ("related to Akihabara") refers to otaku culture in all its many forms, not to duty-free electronics stores that have been established since the 1960s. The demonstration was mostly for fun, of course, a chance to dress up like your favorite anime character and take part in something spontaneous, but some of the participants really seemed to be getting into it, hiding their faces like PLO guerillas and beating their breasts as they demanded freedom to be otaku in their chosen part of Tokyo.

Japan is not happy, it seems, if it's not constantly presenting foreign visitors with conflicting images of itself. On the one hand, the country can be considered quite open when it comes to subjects like nudity and sex. Public bathing is still quite common, and while male/female mixed bathing (called konyoku, as in our wacky "mixed bathing" T-shirt) has become somewhat of a rarity -- I've only managed to find one such bath in all my years of onsen- hopping, and I'm been paying really close attention-- getting naked in front of strangers of the same sex is still something Japanese never bat an eye at. Occasional nudity on television is by no means shocking, even during prime time, and late-night television in Japan can still give Benny Hill a run for his money when it wants to. Sex has been expressed in art for centuries, and the subset of ukiyoe known as shunga ("spring pictures"), which included the first "naughty tentacles" depiction, dates back to the Edo Period. On the other hand, Japan can be an extremely conservative place at the same time. The roles between men and women are still trapped in the 1950s in many ways, with some girls ernestly wanting to be nothing more than housewives when they grow up. Alternative lifestyles are generally not shared with others, and although the English word "coming out" exists in Japanese (カミングアウトする), it's almost unheard of in practice. When my wife and I went to Thailand with some other Japanese tourists, there were many Europeans there, sunbathing with their tops off, but the idea of trying this was positively scandalous to all the Japanese tourists.