Friday, October 26, 2007

All about the Japanese and shoes, the benefits of living in another time zone, and understanding the world through its taxis...?

You probably know that the Japanese take their shoes off when they enter a house. Shoes are considered to be extremely dirty objects which must never be brought inside unless they're thoroughly cleaned first, and my wife keeps our old washing machine outside our house specifically for shoes, since washing them in our normal machine would be unthinkable. I once had the gaul to stand on a bench with my shoes on and got yelled at by my students for causing inconvenience to the next person who wanted to sit there, something that had never entered my mine before that point. Shoes are always left in the "genkan," a recessed area by the front door which is officially considered part of the outside of the house (in the old days, the genkan was much larger and animals were kept there). One staple of TV dramas and boy-meets-girl anime involves a girl who comes to her boyfriend's apartment only to see another female pair of shoes already there, an interesting dramatic twist that would be difficult to translate culturally to the West. The other day, my daughter came out to carry some bags from the car without putting her shoes on, which caused me to realize what a gaijin my little girl was. Because the soto (outside) of a house is so much dirtier than the uchi (inside), it's all but unheard of for Japanese children to walk around outdoors barefoot.

Japanese taxi

You can view the world in many ways, from the standpoint of history, politics, the arts, or if you're like me, comparative popular culture. Or if you like, you could focus on taxi cabs. Although we all take taxis for granted, they're often an interesting symbol of each respective country, from the iconic Black Taxis of London to the multi-cultural mish-mash that are taxis in New York City. When my son went to Malaysia he was fascinated to see that all the taxis there were vehicles made in that country, apparently required by law, which caused us to start paying attention to taxis whenever we went somewhere new. If you ever come to Japan, be sure and take a lot of taxi rides, as it's a real treat. Just as taxis in Germany are usually well-apportioned Mercedes Benz vehicles, 90% of Japanese taxis are the Toyota Comfort, made by Japan's most famous automobile company specifically for the industry. Japanese taxis are extremely clean, and when they're not driving someone to a new location, taxi drivers are usually lavishing care on their vehicles to keep them spotless. The most interesting aspect of Japanese taxis for foreigners are the passenger side doors that open and close automatically, using a hydraulic mechanism the driver can control. It's the ultimate in convenience.

One issue of living in Japan and running an international company like J-List is dealing with the time difference between here and the rest of the world. Japan is 16 hours ahead of California, which means that when people on the West Coast of the U.S. are sitting down to dinner, we're all just starting our morning the next day. Being ahead of everyone else has several benefits, including the ability to forget birthdays or Mother's Day without penalty, since you can be a day late but still be in the zone. It's a benefit for Mac users, too: I got to get Leopard, Apple's new OS, 16 hours ahead of most of the world. Although people grumble about having to remember to set their clocks for Daylight Savings Time, it's not a problem here since Japan never adopted the system. While not having to spring forward or fall back is nice, having it get dark at around 4 pm then going to bed while the morning sun peers through my window is kind of lame.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Thoughts on innovation and cameras in cell phones, the "next" Brad Pitt as an Otaku, and update on all those lovely fires...

Is teen heart-throb Zac Efron, the so-called "next Brad Pitt," an otaku? That's the question asked in a Japanese magazine I happened to come across the other day. Zac is getting a lot of press in Japan because of the popularity of the High School Musical films which made quite a splash here, and he's accumulated a sizeable base of screaming female fans. The article was especially interested in whether or not Zac's love of anime like Dragonball Z, Death Note and Evangelion qualified him as a bona fide otaku or not. Zac is quite taken with Japan, and whenever he's here he reportedly heads to Akihabara for some serious shopping. In a way I guess it's no mystery that Zac's name goes hand-in-hand with anime in the minds of Japanese fans, since he's named after one of the most famous mecha from the Gundam universe, the MS-05J Zaku, the backbone of the Principality of Zeon. The Japanese certainly are no strangers to cute male idols. Between the constant flow of new "boy talents" from the Johnny's Entertainment management agency and the current crop of South Korean male idols hoping to make it on Japan's lucrative idol circuit, Japanese fans have a place in their hearts prepared for Zac.

As in most other parts of the world, the cellular phone has taken root in Japan in a big way, and a lot of the innovations we now take for granted came about as a result of the stiff competition in the "keitai" (portable phone) market here. Take the humble in-phone digital camera, a feature that just about every unit sports nowadays. The first phone to feature a built-in camera was the Sanyo J-SH04, released back in 2000 by J-Phone, formerly Vodafone and now part of Yahoo Japan mogul Masayoshi Son's Softbank empire. This feature started the era of "Sha-Mail" (picture mail), allowing people to email 80x160 pixel postage stamp-sized pics to each other, surely a landmark in the progress of mankind. Which brings me to one more big difference between Japan and the U.S. -- patents and how they're used. While all modern countries allow for new ideas to be patented for a period of time so that the owners can realize benefit from their inventions, I've seen some pretty bizarre patent claims over the years, including individuals asserting "ownership" of the concept of the mouse click, a virtual shopping cart, and the hierarchial menu. Somehow, the Japanese manage to get by without these kinds of "patent wars," and it's very rare that the subject comes up at all. When Nissan comes up with a nifty new way to add storage space to a sedan, they don't try to patent it to keep Toyota from copying it, and when the first camera was put inside a phone, no company tried to get a own the concept of "A method for mounting a CCD censor in a communications device." Yet somehow, the Japanese economy seems to move along pretty well, with competition making sure the best products are chosen most often by consumers. I wonder what it is the Japanese are doing differently when it comes to patents?

Although my adopted country is always fun, I still have love my real home town of San Diego -- the beautiful weather, the laid-back attitude, being able to go to the beach in January. Unfortunately the warm Santa Ana winds that make California such a nice place most of the time to be are causing absolute havoc right now, as fires engulf hundreds of thousands of acres. San Diego has several fires still burning, and winds are still whipping the flames to incredible temperatures, causing tragedy for many and forcing a mind-blowing 300,000 people to be evacuated. Our thoughts are with everyone caught up in these events, and we hope things will start to turn around soon. While J-List's San Diego office isn't in danger, several of our employees are affected by the flames, including two who can't get to work because of closed roads. We're striving to make sure any delays in shipping products are minimal while firefighters get the flames under control, and we thank everyone for your understanding in advance.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Little differences between Japan and America like sandwiches, crime and honesty in Japan, and vending machine costumes?

Sometimes it's fun to notice the little differences between Japan and the U.S., like the way packaging of products is much sturdier here, with two or three layers between you and that Kit Kat bar and drinks in steel cans thick enough to stop bullets. Another difference I came across recently involved the preparation and consumption of sandwiches. Last night I decided to make grilled cheese for dinner, something I don't usually do since the only sliced cheese available here is a bland-tasting Mozzarella called "melty cheese." I asked my wife and daughter how they'd like their sandwiches cut, launching into a slightly obsessive explanation of the many ways to approach the cutting of bread, and how I personally preferred a single diagonal cut from corner to corner, or in the case of grilled cheese cut into four triangles so you can see the melted cheese as it slowly cools. My family stared at me with blank expressions, though, and it dawned on me that the Japanese, who eat rice far more often than bread, have less "sandwich culture" than us. That's not to say sandwiches don't exist at all here -- popular varieties include ham, egg salad, whipped cream and strawberry, cucumber and mayonnaise, and one of my favorites, Katsu-Sand, or a fried pork cutlet with that heavenly sauce called "sauce" on it inside bread. In keeping with the Japanese traditional of ensuring that all females are constipated all the time, sandwiches are usually served with the crusts completely cut off (to avoid roughage).

If you checked the Internet over the weekend, you may have caught one of the dozen or so blogs that linked to a wacky image of a person dressed as a Coca-Cola vending machine, from a piece last week in the New York Times. The article stated with a straight face that fear of being assaulted while walking down the street was causing Japanese females to disguise themselves as vending machines to feel safe, which immediately compelled me to check my calendar to see that I hadn't somehow time-slipped to April 1st. For the record, the Times reporter got this one wrong, taking a parody creation intended as social commentary for a product people would actually use. It is, of course, easy to get the wrong idea about Japan, a country that seems at times to be specially created to perplex Westerners. I remember as a child hearing about the paper walls in Japan and wondering how they kept rain and wind out -- but of course, shoji doors are only used inside, and there are sturdy walls of wood and concrete between you and the elements. Before I came to Japan, I got some advice from an older gentleman in a barber shop to "Stay away from those geisha! They'll get ya!" I've yet to find anything resembling real geisha in modern Japan, although I drank beer with a Shinto shrine maiden once. And those weird Japanese inventions you may have seen, like tiny umbrellas for your shoes or a small electric fan you attach to your chopsticks to cool your noodles as you eat them? They're a long-running gag called "chindougu," or "useless Japanese inventions" and they don't exist, although we always get a few requests for them at J-List.

Vending Machines

For the record, Japan is statistically quite a safe country when it comes to crime, and visitors here probably have nothing to fear (as long as you watch out for those geisha). Murders are so rare in Japan that when one occurs, it's often discussed for days, and the idea of a murder not being reported in the news because it was "too normal" is unheard of. Japan has been rumored to be a country so honest that you could forget an expensive camera on a park bench and go back for it the next day to find it still there, and this has proven to be true for me on several occasions -- also, a gaijin friend of mine managed to lose his wallet in three different parts of Japan yet it was returned to him through the police all three times. It doesn't always work that way of course -- I once managed to have an expensive Zero Haliburton case taken off a train in "safe" Japan, then a week later in the U.S. my wife lost her purse with $800 in cash inside (silly Japanese females, will they never learn?), yet it was returned to her with all the cash inside. If you're planning a trip to Japan, you should have nothing to fear as long as you take certain precautions. Avoid bringing too much cash, of course, and keep valuables close to you, and if a place looks seedy and dangerous, it may well be -- use common sense and try to go with a local friend as a guide if possible.

J-List specializes in Japan's excellent PC dating-sim games, which feature intricate stories and beautiful anime-style characters you can interact with in many ways. One of our favorite titles is also one of the most unique: Casual Romance Club, a game that was released in English and the only game in which the girls will chat with you in beautiful (Japanese accented) English as an option. It's one of the most realistic "dating-sim" games ever conceived of, since that's what you do, interact with the girls in the "dating club" and find out what makes each girl tick, then ask them out for a date -- but watch out, since the girls can be quite jealous of each other, just like in real life. For a limited time, you can get this game sent to you with free shipping, quite a savings since it ships from Japan in a large heavy box with the most beautiful computer manual you'll ever see in a PC game.

Remember that J-List carries tons of wacky Japanese T-shirts, with designers that use the aesthetic beauty of kanji to create a great original look for you. Whether you're looking for wacky messages like "Support the Emperor and Expel the Foreign Barbarians" (a popular 19th century political slogan), subtle messages like "Warning: Rated H" or are more interested in shirts with cultural appeal, we've got plenty of designs for you, with both standard men's shirts as well as stylish fitted T-shirts for girls from American Apparel. Also, now that it's starting to get cooler, we humbly suggest you check out our line of extremely warm hoodies, which are made using the best quality 80/20 cotton blends available for years of softness.

By request, I present pictures of our "reform" (remodeling), at least as far as my wife will let me take pictures of, since the house is dirty and all that. We mainly did two things, replace the "unit bath" and tore out the ceiling in our living room, leaving a big space and making a little guest room up there.

This is the tatami room, which we retooled to use square "Ryukyu-datami" Okinawa-style tatami which we like better because we just gotta be us. Our builder cleverly wrapped natural wood pillars around the old ugly ones, making everything look cool. My wife insisted on a big red wall in the background, to break up our otherwise colorless home.

Since shoji doors came up today, here are ours. They're much more functional, since they slide into the side parts so they're completely out of the way. The bottom rails where the doors slide on is also "barrier free" so you won't stub your toe on them.

Close-up of the Okinawa-style tatatmi mats.

The little room upstairs is quite unused right now. We call it the Uno room since that's all we do up there, play Uno, but we'll get some kind of chairs up there later.