Friday, September 28, 2007

Thoughts on how the Japanese define "family," confusion over English lyrics in Japanese songs, and how to tell a Korean from a Japanese

We've got a bit of a running joke in our family. South Korean television dramas are popular in Japan, and whenever my kids and I catch one on TV we call out to my wife to let her know that "her TV show is on." It seems that for some reason, my Japanese wife seems to be mistaken for a Korean whenever she sets foot outside of her native country. For example, when we fly to the U.S., we sometimes take Korean Airlines since the bibimbap is good, and when the flight attendants get to my wife's seat to ask her if she'd like more tea, they always switch from Japanese to Korean. While this often reaps various benefits -- retailers in Hawaii will give her better discounts if they can't tell she's from Japan -- we always wonder what mechanism is at work. Of course, it's neigh on impossible to tell what nationality a person is just by looking at them, although that doesn't stop Japanese from assuming that every Caucasian must be from the U.S. or Canada.

What is exactly is a "family"? Different people might have different uses for the word, describing members of the same household, or perhaps including a wider range of relatives. In Japan there's no vagueness at all, as the concept of "family" is set by the koseki, or the official family register that's maintained in every Japanese city. An extremely old system -- the first family register dates back to the year 645, although the system in use today was begun in 1872 -- the koseki is a complete record of the lives of every Japanese citizen, including every major event that happens to them, with western ideas such as birth or death certificates and marriage licenses all working through the koseki registry. When a baby is born, he's added to the the family's registry entry, and when a woman gets married she's removed from her father's registry and added to her husband's. Gaijin living in Japan aren't always happy with the family registry system, though. Since we're not citizens, foreigners aren't allowed to be listed officially in the family register except in the comments section. As a result, it looks on paper like my wife is a single mother of two kids, and we've had visits from social workers in our city to check up on the poor woman who has no husband.

When dealing with Japan, it's natural to encounter some "WTF" moments, like seeing a strawberry & whipped cream sandwich for sale in a convenience store for the first time; that first encounter with an ita-sha, a car decked out as a mobile shrine to an anime character; or being asked if having blue eyes meant I saw the world through a blue tint. I remember being confused by the tendency of Japanese songwriters to put seemingly random English phrases in Japanese songs. Reading through my old CDs, I'd see bizarre phrases like HEART CHECK or BLUE RAY, LEMON or GET CHANCE AND LUCK or FAD, FAD, WITH SOMETHING COOL, LIKE A HIDDEN LUMINARY. After a while I came to appreciate that to the Japanese, English represents an emotional investment of (usually) six years of hard work spent memorizing grammar and vocabulary, and songwriters can use English to bring out feelings in listeners that couldn't be accessed otherwise. Plus, English is just so darned kakko ii (cool), so adding a splash of OH PLEASE BE FREEDOM into the middle of a song gives it a special mystique. Another theory might be that the Japanese songwriters are putting bizarre English phrases into their songs to mess with the minds of foreigners who try to comprehend their language, a thought that occurred to me when watching the original Macross movie the other day, with the line "[Small white dragon] a very messiah." Is that some obscure Dragonriders of Pern reference? I just can't figure it out...

2008 calendars season is in full swing, and now is the perfect time to browse our extensive selection of over 200 large-format poster-sized calendars that are normally only available to people living inside Japan. From all the hottest anime to gorgeous Japanese actresses and swimsuit idols to kanji and art and traditional images of Japan, I really believe there's something that everyone will love in our great lineup. Personally I recommend the Studio Ghibli calendars, which are a treat every year. The large Ghibli calendar is especially nice because it features all-new and original images from the films of Hayao Miyazaki, including insight into the movies that can't be gleaned from any other source -- for example, through the calendars you can learn what happens several years after the My Neighbor Totoro movie ends. Remember that are great calendars are the perfect gift for anyone who's fascinated with Japan this Christmas season.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The mechanisms of Japan's group structures, big differences in education between Japan and the U.S., and some useful Japanese words

The Japanese, as I've written many times, are quite group oriented, and it's interesting to observe some of the actual mechanisms that support this aspect of society. In virtually my entire education from the 7th grade on, I've had mixed schedules -- math in second period with Mr. Johnson, English in third period with Mr. Mihalka and so on, with different students around me each hour. In Japan, the system is quite different: students are are assigned to a class that they stay in all year long, with teachers coming and going each hour. Being with the same students all day for a year often has the effect of bringing them closer together, and it's probably more common for Japanese to maintain those connections throughout their lives than for Americans. Japanese usually get two sets of these special school groups: those they attended Elementary and Junior High School with, usually kids from the same neighborhood; and friends from High School, which is not part of compulsory education, thus students are free to choose which school they want to go to based on their study goals. My son commutes to school with several boys, a group that calls themselves Hosoya-gumi since they get off the train at Hosoya Station. It wouldn't surprise me if they maintained their friendship throughout their lives.

One aspect of this group-centered approach to education is, what do you when students who must study together are at different levels? When I took Spanish in High School, there were students of all ages in the class with me, since we were all at the same level Espanolically speaking. But in Japan, with its stricter senpai-kohai relationships, it's inconceivable that students of different school years would study together for any reason. If there are students who have trouble keeping up in a certain subject, they are required to take extra lessons and do more homework, since everyone must progress through the same material together. The concepts of a very smart student skipping a grade or a slower student being held back a year are rare here, part of the reason why parents of extremely gifted children often move to the U.S. or Europe, where special talents can be treated as a positive thing. When my daughter gets to Junior High School she's going to have a big shock, since she'll be taking English along with the other kids and learning phrases like "this is a pen" or "I am a boy" despite the fact that she's bilingual already.

It's funny how sometimes a single word of Japanese can carry so much meaning, and there's a group of especially descriptive three-syllable words that can be quite challenging for foreigners to learn. One of word you run across a lot is sokkuri (so-KU-ri), meaning "almost exactly the same as," so if you had a friend who looked like a guy named John, you'd say say "John ni sokkuri desu" (you are the spitting image of John). The Japanese like to do things the proper way, which is expressed in the word shikkari (shi-KAI-ri, proper, correct), and just about the kindest praise you can heap on someone is that they're shikkari shiteiru (they are upstanding and proper in all ways). Another word from this group is "sappari" (sa-PAH-ree, fresh, clean), as in the phrase "sappari shita!" (I feel so refreshed!), said after you get out of a hot bath. Other words from this group include gakkari (gah-KAH-ree), the feeling of being let down or disappointed; kossori (koh-SOH-ree), doing something secretly; and pittari (pi-TAH-ree), describing a perfect fit. Since one valid approach to learning a foreign language is "memorize whatever phrases will make cute female speakers of that language squeal with amusement," consider memorizing some of these words and pulling them out at the right moment to see what happens.

Well, darned if we don't have even more 2008 calendars posted for preorder today. There are lots of nice new calendars up on the site, including the gorgeous upcoming calendar for the all-new Evangelion movies, new Hello Kitty offerings, kanji calendars to learn Japanese with, cute idols like more of the popular "Hao Hao Baby Panda" calendars, several new anime calendars, and a great "Doraemon's Go-Anywhere Door" offering for 2008.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The next Prime Minister of Japan is decided, more thoughts on how the Japanese keep their politics peaceful, and things to do in Tokyo

Well, the race for the leadership of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party is over, and the calm, moderate Yasuo Fukuda has emerged victorious. Japanese leaders need to be consensus-builders, and when LDP politicians compared the calm, steady Mr. Fukuda (71) to his younger, more fiery colleague Taro Aso (66), it didn't take long for them to decide which was the safer choice, even if Fukuda does look like a parody of a Japanese salaryman complete with "bar code hair." While I was hoping for avid anime and manga fan Aso to be chosen -- I can just see the cabinet appointments he'd have made, with Rumiko Takahashi and Katsuhiro Otomo heading up the various government ministries -- I guess I can't fault the lawmakers' logic. Mr. Fukuda happens to be from J-List's home prefecture of Gunma, the fourth Japanese leader to emerge from our sort-of rural, sort-of urban part of the country, and it's no small point of pride here to have so many Prime Ministers springing from this humble land. Mr. Fukuda has promised to continue to support the U.S. in its current operations and work for better ties with China and South Korea. To that end, he's agreed to refrain from visiting Yasukuni Shrine, a private Buddhist temple in Tokyo where thousands of Japanese soldiers are interred, including some of the primary war criminals. That alone will be a refreshing change.

The new Prime Minister is famous for cracking jokes

It was interesting to compare the process by which Japan's next leader was chosen with the way that parties pick candidates back home. There can be a lot of political blood shed between candidates vying for a nomination in the States, yet the two hopefuls for the top LDP job avoided any negativism whatsoever in their statements, speaking nothing but words of praise and respect for each other as they slowly worked to win the trust of their party. One impression I had was that very few people seemed to be involved in the process, with most discussions going on behind closed doors -- which is one of those sho ga nai (it can't be helped) areas of Japanese politics, I guess. One of the words batted around this time was "thoroughbred" (the Japanese sounds funny, サローブレッド, "saro-breddo"), indicating the long history both Mr. Fukuda and Mr. Aso have had in politics, being the son and grandson of former Prime Ministers, respectively. This mattered enormously to the political establishment in this country where true outsiders and political mavericks are few and far between.

I often get asked by readers who are coming to Tokyo for a visit what they should do while here. While the Kanto region of Japan pales in cultural significance to the greatness of cities like Kyoto, Nara, and Himeji about 400 km down the Shinkansen line, there is plenty to see and do here. Tokyo has a lot of beauty to be found, and shrines like Asakusa and Meiji are popular with foreign visitors, or else take a stroll through Ueno Park and check out the many museums found inside. Shopping is always a fun activity, and there's plenty of good things to buy here, from high-end department stores all the way down to the shopping streets of Ameyoko, which grew out of a black market during the occupation of Japan. There are some good short day trips out of the Tokyo region, including the lovely town of Kamakura, home of the second largest Buddha statue in the country; and Nikko, a breathtaking collection of temples and shrines and a 5-story pagoda. Being from San Diego, I've always felt an affinity for our sister city of Yokohama, and that city is definitely great for doing some sightseeing, especially the Chinatown area. Part of the fun of visiting Japan can be going to places you've seen in movies, manga or anime, such as the Shibuya 109 building, or the inverted pyramid of Tokyo Big Sight, or Tokyo Tower, the scale replica of the Eifel Tower featured in dozens of anime series. If you're ever looking for a hotel in Tokyo, I always recommend the Mets Hotel Chain operated by JR, a convenient and modern chain of hotels built into major train stations for extra convenience.

Good news for fans of our large-format 2008 Japanese calendars: we've posted *even more* amazing anime, JPOP and sexy idol calendars to the site, allowing you to browse what we have and put your preorder in now. Japanese calendars are extra-special because the printing is so large and beautiful, and since the calendars are not generally available outside of Japan, they're a unique way to bring a slice of Japan to your life all year long. Today's calendars include the relaxing Rilakkuma ("Relax Bear"), beautiful women like Shoko Hamada and Yuka Kosaka and and China Fukunaga; anime series like Xenoglossia, a great sci-fi series using characters from the IdolMasters universe; a calendar of baby pandas, a calendar that teaches you Japanese, and much more! Browse our 2008 calendars now!