Friday, September 14, 2007

The possibility of Japan's first "otaku" Prime Minister, various thoughts on bilingualism, and all about Japanese health drinks (and other potions)

The rush is on to choose a successor to Prime Minister Abe after his sudden resignation on Wednesday. I saw that some of the newspapers in the U.K. were calling for a bolder, more dynamic Japanese leader this time, and I agree, although I know what a challenge it's likely to be. The difference between a Prime Minister and a President is, of course, that the former is chosen by his party and the latter is chosen directly by voters, essentially making a Japanese leader's relationship with the other members in his party more important in a way than that of his own people. In group-oriented Japan, it's difficult for any individual leader to stand out too much without being knocked back in line by his peers, an effect known as deru kui wa utareru or "the standing nail will be hammered down." It seems that any show of real imagination in a politician leads to them immediately being opposed by just about everyone, and Japan has gone through 11 PMs since I've been in Japan, where Britain has had just three. That's why Junichiro Koizumi was such a breath of fresh air in Japanese politics -- a charismatic bachelor who liked rock music, a maverick who had the popularity to chop much of the deadwood out of the Old Guard of Japanese politics and reign in Japan's (largely wasteful) public works projects. He even looked like George Washington. Currently the leading candidate to replace Abe looks to be Taro Aso, who was the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the past two governments. Although everything is still very much up in the air, he is an interesting candidate, having studied at Stanford and in London. He's also a big fan of anime culture, and was the force behind the creation of a "Nobel Prize in Manga" to promote Japan's pop culture around the world. He reads thirty manga volumes a week, and I hear he likes Rozen Maiden. Could we be looking at Japan's first otaku Prime Minister? Or will former Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukada, who happens to be from our prefecture of Gunma (Yasu lives in his district) be able to get more support?

After living in Japan for 15+ years, my language skills are as good as I need them to be. But bilingualism is never absolute, a fact I am reminded of whenever I turn the channel and catch Raw Debate Until Morning, a news discussion program broadcast every couple of months in which politicians and economists debate the issues of the day from midnight all the way til the sun comes up on live television -- that show is hard to follow. When you're learning a foreign language, it's important to get input from a variety of sources. I had a Japanese friend who arrived in the U.S. and taught herself English by watching daytime soap operas, and as a result she was really good at any conversation involving romance or adultery, but not much else. Like many anime fans interested in learning Japanese, I got a lot more exposure to anime and manga than from any other source, and I learned at some cost that people don't really speak like Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star. It's better to broaden your interest, exploring different kinds of media like Japanese music, Japanese dramas or films, and whatever else seems interesting.

Ever heard of Zena, Yunker and Aspara? They're Japanese energy drinks, a major category of product in Japan that promises to improve your health, remove tiredness and give you the energy you need to be successful in business. Although the small single-serving bottles usually provide nothing more than caffeine and vitamins in a sweet syrup, the marketing muscle behind the drinks has turned them into a consumer sub-culture, Japan style, and Japan consumes more energy and sports drinks than any other country. The first health drink was Lipovitan, released in 1962 by Taisho Pharmaceutical, and it's still the industry leader, with a staggering 2 million bottles sold every day. For four decades Lipovitan's TV commercials featuring a pair of burley men who cry out Faito! Ippatsu! ("Fight! One more push!") as they perform some athletic activity have been as famous as Mr. Whipple (er, is he still famous? I've been in Japan too long to know for sure). Back in the 90s another Japanese energy drink, Regain, served as a symbol of the differences between Japan, Inc. and the U.S., and their current commercial showing Japanese businessmen scaling a building in their eagerness to get to work is one of their best ever. In addition to giving you back your "genki" (pep), some of these energy drinks promise to revitalize men (wink wink) with Chinese herbs, cure your cold symptoms, and remove your hangover in record time.

Speaking of energy drinks, all Japan has been buzzing about the Final Fantasy 10th Anniversary Potion, an extremely limited boxed set that includes a gorgeous potion in a glass and metal container and a commemorative art book, which seemed to sell out completely in Tokyo's otaku mecca of Akihabara today. Although supply has been extremely limited, we've been able to get some stock of this item for J-List customers. Featuring the official logo of the Shinra Company, it's a great item that all FF7 fans should be sure and check out. Get yours before they're gone!

Just some random pics I had in my camera. Does Starbuck's sell a scoop of ice cream in their ice coffee? They're missing out here...

This is from our favorite Kyoto style ramen restaurant. They specialize in matcha stuff, and the matcha ice (meaning matcha ice cream) is just delicious.

In Karuizawa there's this little cafe that (oddly) serves great yakiniku (Korean BBQ) inside. Cooked over actual coals!

In commemoration of the release of the iPod Touch, I thought I'd give you my favorite wallpaper. I love this Haruhi pic.

Or if you're a Heroes fan, this works too...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Frustration at teaching English in Japan, "sorry" to see Prime Minister Abe go, how to pronounce Japanese, and "see you later, bald person"

My wife has decided to volunteer at my daughter's elementary school as an assistant in the English classes they have once a week. I knew it was a bad idea to have her help out, since English education here is not exactly the model of our tax dollars well spent, and I knew it would frustrate her. The lessons are taught by a Japanese teacher rather than a native English speaker, although there is a separate English lesson another day that has a native gaijin -- maybe it's to instill in the kids a sense that "English" and "English conversation" are separate and should never be confused. As with all English classes here, the lesson began with the ubiquitous "How are you? Fine, thanks, and you?" (My daughter likes to throw a wrench into the works there, saying, "Actually, I've got a headache, so I don't feel fine at all" just to see the looks on the teacher's face.) For the first half of the class, the students listened to an audio tape that taught English phonetics ("ba-NA-na, not BA-na-na"). Things went pretty smoothly until the teacher started having the students repeat "I can skating! I can skiing!" My wife desperately wanted to correct the teacher's erroneous English, but could never do so in front of the students, and in the end, she wasn't even able to bring the issue up with after the class was over. Incidentally, the funny English phrase among elementary school kids in Japan is to say "See you hage!", substituting the word for "bald" (HAH-gay) for the English word "again," resulting in "See you, bald person!" Now you can amaze your Japanese friends with this fun phrase.

We've got some breaking news for you today: Shinzo Abe has just announced that he'll be stepping down as Japan's 90th Prime Minister. The issues are many, but in the end his inability to bring about any of his major goals and his party's poor showing at the recent elections caused him to throw in the towel. Japan's youngest-ever Prime Minister and the first born after World War II, he got off to a good start, trying to bring the theme of a "Beautiful Country, Japan" to his administration. Bad luck set in quickly, though, with several scandals, including the problem of missing National Pension payments (which stemmed from the 1980s, so it's not really his fault) and some impropriety with public funds on the part of his Minister of Agriculture that resulted in the man committing suicide. One of the biggest defeats was the fight with the opposition parties over the continuing participation of Japan's support for the U.S. War on Terror, especially supplying oil to U.S. ships off Afghanistan. Mr. Abe's timing is odd since he just gave a speech to the Diet two days ago in which he outlined many of his new ongoing policies, then he quits two days later. One interesting thing about Japanese politicians: they never really leave. Even after major scandals that cause Prime Ministers to step down, they often hold onto their Diet seats, sometimes for a decade or longer. So if you need Abe-san for any reason, he'll probably still be around.

Every once in a while I like to revisit the rules of Japanese pronunciation, since I distinctly remember looking at at a book called Flying Origami as a child and wondering how the heck I was supposed to pronounce this incredibly alien word. First, understand that Japanese is a syllable-based language, meaning that sounds always come in consonant + vowel syllable pairs (e.g. ka, ki, ku, ke, or ko, never just a "k" sound by itself), or as a single vowel syllable. The exception is the letter "n," the only consonant that can appear by itself, without which we wouldn't have the word "ramen" (and that would be a travesty). Vowels are easy as pie in Japanese -- there are only five, identical to the ones in Spanish. They are:

A - "ah" rhyming with "fall"
I - "ee" rhyming with "feel"
U - "oo" rhyming with "fool"
E - "eh" rhyming with "let"
O - "oh" rhyming with "go"

Some things to keep in mind. First of all, discard if you can the spelling rules of English, like double "o" being read like "soon" and the "silent e" on the ends of words. Every syllable is pronounced, so that beach volleyball idol Miwa Asao's last name would be pronounced "ah-sah-oh." Although America had a famous president named Honest Abe, the current Japanese Prime Minister (for a few more days anyway) is pronounced "AH-beh." There is no short "a" sound (as in "cat") in Japanese, so if you find yourself saying words like kanji (Chinese characters) or the final syllable of ichi man (the number 10,000) like the word "at" or "fan," try to say "KAHN-ji" and "ee-chi MAHN" instead. If you're interested in learning Japanese, I always recommend textbooks and study guides that force you to work in the "native" Japanese writing system, hiragana, as its much easier to pronounce well if you move away from Romanized Japanese. The Kanji Practice Flashcards from White Rabbit are an example of a really good system for learning, as they avoid writing any Japanese words in the Roman alphabet, forcing you to learn to read and pronounce correctly.

Announcing the return of Pocky to J-List! Every summer we're forced to remove all chocolate items from the site, due to the heat and humidity of Japan in the warmer months. Now that it's cooled off some, we're happy to announce that Pocky is back! We're posting delicious Marble Pocky, brand new for the season: see Green Tea and and Mild & Bitter on the site now. As always, you can buy shrinkwrapped boxes of 10 and get an extra discount.

2008 Calendar Season continues at J-List, as we add even more great anime, JPOP, Japanese bikini idol, and other large-format 2008 Japanese calendars posted for you to check out now. From pretty faces like Yuko Ogura or Maki or the cute girls of Morning Musume to the all-new Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex calendar by Shirow Masamune to great animation calendars like Gintama, Inuyasha and more, J-List has a great way to bring a little bit of Japan to your wall all year long. Calendars can be preordered now, and will start shipping in October. Check out our great lineup now!

Monday, September 10, 2007

More about "standing out in a crowd," what Steven Spielberg has to do with learning Japanese, and ways that Japanese people save space

I talked last time about how the dynamic of "standing out in a crowd" can work a little differently when 98.5% of the people around you are of similar genetic and cultural stock. It may be hard for Westerners to believe, but the idea of being futsu (foo-TSOO), meaning usual or normal or the same as everyone else, has a much more positive image here than it might in the U.S. and Europe. It's interesting to see how advertisers pay attention to the delicate balance between Japanese consumers' natural desire to fit in with society at large with the yearning to be a little "unique." While few in Japan would like to think of themselves as strange (hen) or even different (chigau), I've seen the term chotto kawatteru ("just a little different") used to promote products aimed at young people -- if you use this eyeliner or lip gloss, you'll be a tiniest shade different from your classmates. You can almost feel the copywriters straining to find just the right word that will appeal to viewers without alienating them by going too far. During one of Kodak's attempts at making market share gains in the Japanese film market, they hired pretty actress Asuka Seto who brandied a bright yellow Kodak camera around while walking through a Japanese temple. "What's so bad about standing out?" she proclaimed in the commercial.

That Steven Spielberg, he's really good at making movies. You could say he's "Jaws." In Japanese, the word for being "good at" something is jozu (JOH-zoo), which happens to be how the English movie title Jaws is pronounced, hence making a fun (?) little pun. Making word connections like this is one of the ways I helped myself learn the language -- I still remember doodling a little shark coming out of the water in my textbook next to this word -- and it's one way to help "trick" your brain into remembering new information. Coming up with mnemonic ways to learn Japanese is quite helpful. For example, you might picture famous Beatle Ringo Starr eating an apple (which is ringo in Japanese), or the classic shinu (to die), which I memorized using the sentence "She knew he was going to die." Having trouble remembering the word yurasu, to shake? Well, get out on the dance floor and shake yurasu! The word nobiru means to stretch, to extend, but if you don't reach out for the frosty mug on the counter, you'll get no beer. The word for duck in Japanese is ahiru, but a duck with a cape might just be a hero. And so on. Learning languages is fun because it gives you insight into how your own brain works. I'll bet that when we all learned our first language, something similar was going on in our own brains, and "baby talk" is just the verbal expression of this.


How would you feel if the owner of the Round Table Pizza in your neighborhood lived on the second floor of the restaurant with his family, and as you went in to eat you could catch a glimpse of his wife hanging their laundry on the balcony above? This wouldn't be rare in Japan at all, a country where usable land is scarce and people must be more efficient with it. As a result, a whole range of businesses from beauty parlors to convenience stores to the liquor shop that my Japanese family runs are built with the shop and the living area in the same unit. There are even koban (police boxes) which feature a small police station below and a space for the officers stationed there to eat and sleep upstairs. In cities like Tokyo, it's common to see family restaurants like Denny's raised off the ground, so that the entire restaurant occupies the second floor, leaving a cavernous parking lot for customers underneath. Although Western-style beds are getting more and more common (my wife's parents just bought the first beds they've ever owned in their lives), traditional futons, which fold up and slide into the closet when not in use, are a great space-saver. If you've ever been to Japan, you might have noticed those toilets with a faucet at the top, which lets you wash your hands with the new water as it flows into the tank, eliminating the need for a separate sink.

2008 Japanese Calendars Season started two weeks ago with the initial posting of the gorgeous Japanese photography, sushi, bento, and traditional calendars we bring you every year. Today we're happy to a announce the second big volley of great calendars, including our most popular anime, JPOP/JROCK, idol and other offerings. As usual, it's interesting to see which Japanese entertainer will grab the coveted "CL-1" slot, reserved for the most popular "talent" in Japan that year. In past years its been singers Amuro Namie, Kumi Koda and Ayumi Hamasaki, actress Aya Ueto, and so on. This year the top slot was grabbed by Masami Nagasawa, the cute-as-a-button actress who was voted the girl most Japanese men would like to marry. We've posted 40+ new 2008 calendars for you today, including red-hot anime calendars (Bleach, Naruto, Death Note), new anime you may not have discovered yet (D.Gray-Man, Katekyo Hitman), true classics (Totoro, Studio Ghibli), JPOP calendars (BoA, Ayumi Hamasaki), beautiful idols (Aki Hoshino, Satomi Ishihara), and more. There's even a great 2008 Domo-kun calendar this year. Browse our extensive selection now!