Friday, July 27, 2007

Understanding Japan's people through "Karaoke manners," comparing cultures and "chicken scratches," and an update at our Comicon booth

Karaoke (pronounced kah-rah-OH-kay) is the famous Japanese tradition of getting up and singing in front of others. The word literally means "empty orchestra" (the "kara" is the same from from karate, in case you were wondering -- that word means "empty hand"). Karaoke was invented by Daisuke Inoue, a musician who was asked by his fans to make instrumental-only recordings of his music, which gave him the idea of a "music box" that would pass a microphone signal through speakers (too bad he didn't think to patent the concept). I've used karaoke as a useful tool for learning Japanese, since memorizing the lyrics of Japanese songs I want to sing is a darned good way of internalizing vocabulary, plus I can sing the song to myself if I forget the word. In the U.S. I believe most karaoke is done at "karaoke night" at bars or restaurants (although I have to assume this, I will probably be wrong, and you will tell me in the comments), with people choosing a song to sing while everyone watches on, but in Japan the most common way to go singing is a "karaoke box," a small room that you and your group can rent for an hour or two of private singing. Inside this room, your group can sing as loudly or as badly as they want to, and people who would never sing in front of strangers can find the courage to pick up a mic when it's just their friends around them. It's interesting to observe the kinds of manners that come into play when a group is singing, especially the Japanese concept of enryo (enn-RYOH), a word which means "to refraining from [doing something]." Everyone sings and has fun, but it's important not to stuff too many of your own songs into the karaoke machine without constantly checking with everyone else to see if they want to put a song in next. It's pretty funny to watch when a group of six girls are each saying "no, you first!" to everyone else in the room.

Like the HSBC bank advertisements say, never underestimate the importance of local knowledge. That's true when you're comparing the U.S. with Japan, too. To Americans, the basic idea of soup is Campbell's chicken noodle, but in Japan, it's creamy corn soup, sometimes with corn flakes sprinkled on top. When a child loses a tooth in the U.S., the Tooth Fairy takes it away, leaving money in its place; in Japan, you throw the tooth on the roof (if it was a lower tooth) or under your house (if it was a upper tooth). When you take delivery of a new car, you always do it on a lucky day (Taian) according to a special Buddhist weekly calendar, to avoid having a traffic accident. And in the U.S., we sometimes count things by writing "chicken scratch" marks on a sheet of paper, with each completed set of lines equal to five, but in Japan, they write the character for honesty and correctness (tadashii、正). To see the stroke order for writing it, click here.

I talked last time about some of the things that frustrate me about other foreigners living in Japan. I didn't mean to single out members of the JET (Japan English Teachers) program as being any more or less insensitive to the mannerisms of the country all around them than everyone else. Of course, there are many JETs who have learned plenty about Japan during their time in Japan, just as there are probably foreigners who came to Japan with the intention of learning a lot then wasted their time playing pachinko. Sorry if I was over- generalizing there.

We're still rockin' down at the San Diego Comicon, which got under way big time today. We've been meeting thousands of customers and shaking lots of hands -- it's great to be able to talk with so many of our fans directly. If you'll be at the con, drop by booth 129 and say hi to us. We've got our PC dating-sim games, tons of our popular shirts, Domo-kun plush toys, delicious Japanese snacks, Anbu masks, and much more. So please come by and say hello! If you can't make it to the show, at least you'll have the free shipping on all PC dating-sim games to console you.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Peter's rant about "baka-gaijin" (with apologies to Chris Rock), thoughts on Japanese having an "American accent" and getting ready for Comicon!

Like every nation, Japan has a segment of people from other countries living there, although at just 1.5% of the population or so, it's a much lower number than most other parts of the world. Naturally, not every Japanese person is 100% happy about having foreigners disturbing the "wa" of society by doing things that are unexpected, and sometimes downright rude. There can be friction between foreigners, too: "lifer" types like me, who think living in Japan is great, don't always get along with the small number of foreigners who are sometimes negative about the country they're living in, which we'll refer to here as baka-gaijin for the purpose of this post. And let me tell you, everything Japanese people don't like about baka-gaijin, reasonable foreigners like me really don't like about baka-gaijin. You can't do anything around baka-gaijin. Can't sit around your favorite beer vending machine talking to people who stroll by on summer evenings, cause ignorant-ass baka-gaijin are peeing behind the machine, causing the owner to cart it off in disgust. Can't attend a Japanese wedding, because the other stupid gaijin that got invited brought a toaster instead of the $200 cash gift that Japanese manners require. (I was so embarrassed I paid his fee myself, and I didn't even know him.) You want to hide your money from a baka-gaijin? Hide it in a Japanese textbook, cause baka-gaijin don't study Japanese, even though they may live in the country for many years. And you know the worst thing, the worst thing about baka-gaijin? Thinking that the rules of society don't apply to them just because they're different, or because they don't speak the language. Thinking they can ignore paying that traffic ticket they got, or that it's okay to cut in line when waiting for the train, and so on. (Incidentally, if you consider yourself a sometimes baka-gaijin, we've got a cool T-shirt to link to...

I joke (with apologies to Chris Rock, whose monologue I'm parodying) about other foreigners who I encounter in Japan, of course, but sometimes I do get frustrated. Being American, I tend to associate with Americans, Canadians and various English speakers from Europe, but people from any country can violate the rules of what is polite or good sense when living in another country. I once met a gaijin who was playing in a band with other foreigners. Since he was a musician, I thought I'd recommend some of the JPOP bands that I liked and make a CD for him, so he could start to take an interest in the music of the country where he would be spending the next year (at least). He declined my offer, though, saying that Japanese music was "the worst thing in the world" even though he hadn't tried to listen to it at all. There was another foreigner I knew who didn't realize that some jokes that might be funny in English didn't translate so well into Japanese. He made a pun about a girl we knew, essentially substituting the onomatopoeia pera pera (meaning "fluent at a foreign language") with pero pero (roughly, the sound of licking), which resulted in an extremely rude insinuation about the region of the body that the girl liked to lick. A lot of the negativism I saw in other foreigners game from teachers in the JET program, a government program that hires native English speakers to teach in Japanese elementary and junior high schools around the country. JET teachers would often hang out only with other JETs, venting about some of the problems they encountered living in Japan to each other, which served to reinforce negative feelings and keep everyone from learning anything fun or useful about their host country. (This is partially why, in my overview of teaching ESL in Japan article, I say that if you're going to do JET, take at least two years of Japanese and take the CIR path instead, facilitating understanding between the teachers and the Japanese side of things, learning the local language, building connections for the future, and so on.)

The Japanese study a lot of English, usually six years for most high school graduates, and up to ten years for college graduates. By and large, they've chosen to standardize on American English and spelling (e.g. "color" instead of "colour"). When a friend of mine went to Australia for a homestay, everyone at her new host family exclaimed "You talk like an American!" (which is funny, since most North Americans would not be aware of any "American" accent underneath the Japanese one). English is spoken all over the world, of course, and the Japanese do their best to cover other dialects of English -- NHK, Japan's version of the BBC, has alternate English conversation shows on TV, including lessons in the "down under" dialects. In one textbook a junior high school student of mine had, there was a story about a girl who went to study English in Australia. She was terrified when someone told her "It's a good day today" because it sounded to her like they were saying "it's a good day to die." As they get out into the world and actually use English, I'm sure that most Japanese eventually learn there is no such thing as a true "baseline" version of the language, something I was reminded of in Baltimore, where many of my customers spoke dialects ranging from Georgian to New York to Bostonian and even the local Baltimorese (yes, there is an official dialect called that).

The San Diego Comic Convention is right around the corner. If you haven't attended this massive comic book, SF film, animation and art convention then you really should -- it will blow your mind, it's so huge. We'll be busy beavers tomorrow, setting up our display and preparing all our stock for the 100,000+ people who will be coming by. If you're going to be at the show, make sure to head for the 100 aisle, also known as "anime alley." For all those who can't attend, we've got a little gift for you: free shipping (or half price shipping for international) on English dating-sim games while the show is on. This means it's a great time to pick up a game or four, and save!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Otakon wrap up, Japanese election results, and various thoughts about the "Founding Fathers" of modern Japan

Well, Otakon is over, and it was a real blast. As the premier anime convention on the East Coast, it's a very special place where otaku-zoku ("anime geek tribe") of every variety can gather and share their respective obsessions, and they were sure sharing freely. Walking through the halls of the Baltimore Convention Center and seeing all my "kids" (as I think of them, since I've been into anime since the early 80s) really makes me feel warm and fuzzy. Now I'm headed home to get ready for the huge party that will be the San Diego Comic Convention -- hope we'll see you there!

Even during all the fun in Baltimore, the rest of the world was still moving forward. In Japan election day finally arrived on Sunday, ending two weeks of candidates driving around in loudspeaker cars shouting "My name is Yamada! I will work hard for you! Please support us in the election!" Our prefecture's governor was up for re-election, and he was no friend of ours, due to his combatative stance on the issue of whether my son's experimental elementary school, which teaches 70% of the curriculum in English instead of Japanese, should get funding from the prefecture. As a result, all the parents of children in the school came out hard, campaigning for his opponent. Happily, the current governor lost the election, and will be replaced by a governor who's much more open to new ideas in education. Hopefully, this will improve the funding situation at our school in the future.

I talked about the "forefathers" of modern Japan last time, and thought I'd go into more detail. Just as visionaries like Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Rush and George Washington are remembered for the role they played in our early history, the men responsible for creating a modern Japan have a special place of honor in Japanese history books -- and statues in parks, the Japanese love statues in parks. Although the Meiji Restoration is framed as "returning" of power to the Emperor that had been usurped by the Tokugawa Shogun for the 250 years of the Edo Period, it was not so different from any civil war-type conflict, with revolutionaries from provinces of Satsuma, Tosa and Choshu (modern Kagoshima, Kochi and Yamaguchi Prefectures) working to topple the "old guard" in the Shogun's government. Ironically, they were angry at the Shogun for signing treaties with America and Great Britain, and their rebel yell was sonno-joi, which meant "respect the Emperor and expel the foreign barbarians" (now one of our most popular T-shirts). Once they took control, of course, they realized they had to deal with foreign governments after all, and embarked on a program of modernization, taking the best ideas from the United States and the powers of Europe. Some of the most famous names of this period include Hirobumi Ito, the main author of Japan's first constitution and the country's first Prime Minister; Munemitsu Mutsu, who helped establish diplomatic relations with the U.S.; and Shouin Yoshida, a child prodigy who was teaching university courses at the age of nine, and who is famous for sneaking aboard one of Admiral Perry's "black ships" to try to get Perry to negotiate with the rebel provinces instead of the Shogun's forces, but (some say) he spoke Dutch instead of English so no one understood him. But the single most famous person in the struggle between Shogun and rebels would have to be Ryoma Sakamoto, the samurai who first adopted western-style boots instead of the waraji sandals worn by everyone else. He was fascinated with the West, and for some reason he thought the word "laundry" sounded really kakko ii (cool). Sadly, he was assassinated at a young age by an agent working for the Shogun. Just as many of America's Founding Fathers have reputations tarnished by their ownership of slaves, some of Japan's early statesmen look much less noble due to the roles they played in the "colonization" of the Korean Peninsula.

We've got some great news for you: Pretty Soldier Wars A.D. 2048 is in stock and shipping now. This is a fresh new twist on the traditional bishoujo game genre since it adds Final Fantasy Tactics-like game play, requiring you to form an army out of your beautiful army of genetically altered "Biosoldier" warriors, then enjoy dating-sim game stories in between the levels. This great game is just $24.95, and it's in stock in San Diego -- order your copy now!

Remember that J-List carries a variety of fun chewing gum from Japan, including Lotte's hits like Black Black (the minty caffeine gum), Blue Berry (sic), Ume (delicious Japanese plum), Mango and more. Life is a little bit better when you've got a pack of chewing gum from Japan, somehow. Nearly all items can be purchased in complete shrinkwrapped cases (a case is usually 15 packs) for an instant 15% discount at checkout.

Welcome to Otakon! As usual a bunch of people came by to say hello. Thanks for coming by if you did!

Cosplay was everywhere. This is Kaori from Bible Black. It was especially odd to see, like, 15 year olds dressing in this decidedly NSFW anime/game...

Three Haruhi characters.

This is Rorshach from the best comic book ever written, Watchmen. If you haven't read it, go buy it. I'll wait right here.

This was a pretty good Totoro. I've done one of these (um, way back in 1987 at the San Diego Comicon, talk about being ahead of the curve), so I know.

Um, this is Gackt. Gackt, these are my blog readers.

Really cool costume using Gloomy (who I always wan to call Gloomy Bear because it sounds like Gummy Bear when you say it with a Japanese accent, but his name appears to just be Gloomy).

This is known as Kigurumi (kee-goo-roo-ME), the full head anime masks that are usually done to allow middle-aged men to totally become one with Sailor Moon. These appeared to be women, but that could be faked, I guess.