Friday, November 16, 2007

The joy of "onigiri" rice balls, observations on cooperative elements of Japanese language, and man, that's a really Nice Boat!

If you were to plan a picnic, you might pack a basket containing things like sandwiches, potato salad or maybe some pickles, but a Japanese person would almost certainly bring along onigiri, the delicious rice balls from Japan. Formed using the honorific o prefix that can be seen on many Japanese words and nigiri, meaning "to squeeze," onigiri are a popular way to grab a quick snack in Japan. Although they can be as simple as a hunk of salted rice pressed into a shape, there's usually a bit of fish, konbu seaweed or ume plum inside, and nori covering the outside. Onigiri are a major product category for convenience stores in Japan, and even before a new gaijin learns to start reading the language around him, he often memorizes the all-important onigiri color code at Seven Eleven -- red for salmon, blue for "sea chicken" aka tuna mayonnaise, and so on. Onigiri are a staple of bento culture, and Japanese housewives get up extra early to press rice balls to include in lunches for their kids or husbands. Onigiri can be heated but are usually eaten cold, but there's a subset called yaki-onigiri that's basically a triangle of white rice that's roasted over a flame while being painted with soy sauce -- delicious. Along with popular bento items, we sell a lot of onigiri related products on the site -- I thought today's Hello Kitty Onigiri Maker is especially cool.

A language reflects the character of the people who use it, and vice-versa, and I'm sure that if I were to study German, I would see that the precision and attention to detail that Germans are famous for would be evident in their speech. One interesting area of Japanese grammar students learn early on is the verb ending masho, which corresponds to "let's..." as in "let's eat" (tabemasho), "let's go" (ikimasho) or "let's not smoke" (tobacco wo yamemasho). In situations where verbal or written warnings would be worded in a command form in English (do not smoke, do not ride on the escalator backwards), it's common for Japanese to express the same message with this softer "let's..." verb form, making statements like "let's put our telephones into vibration mode" (maanaa modo ni shimasho) or "when a pregnant woman or elderly person gets on the train, let's give our seat to them" (seki wo yuzurimasho). These statements subtly create a warm and fuzzy "let's all cooperate" atmosphere that make people want to do their part for the good of everyone, an important pillar of Japanese society. Every year, the Japanese tax office sponsors commercials featuring famous TV personalities walking to their post office to mail their income tax forms -- "Let's fill out our tax forms accurately and honestly," is the message. Language like this presents a challenge for translators -- if translated literally, the message might not convey the same meaning to everyone.

The various forms of popular otaku culture in Japan and around the world continue to grow, making barriers like geographic location mean less and less, and the recent events surrounding the broadcast of the last episode of the popular anime School Days were a further example of this. School Days is an anime series based on a dating-sim game about a love triangle between Makoto, his girlfriend Kotonoha and their friend Sekai, which combines beautiful characters and a complex (and fairly violent) story. The day before the last episode was to air, a girl killed her father with an axe, and fearing that the act might have been inspired by the show somehow, the TV studios decided to replace the much-awaited last episode with soothing classical music and images of a boat somewhere in Europe, which fans immediately dubbed "Nice Boat!" spreading images all over YouTube. The boat is now a part of pop culture history, and because we love to make esoteric things for otaku, we've made a limited-edition T-shirt to commemorate this really excellent boat.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Thoughts on Japan and group culture in anime, hard and difficult areas of Japanese, English etc., and various mysteries of life in Japan

Japan is famous for its cooperative group culture, and you can see this in many places, from clubs in schools to doujinshi circles to more formal organizations. In the past few years I've noticed that many anime series have been made by groups rather than individual creators or companies, for example the Ikki Tousen Committee, the Claymore Production Committee, and the School Days Production Committee. These groups are generally made up of a variety of members working on the project, including producers, artists, representatives from companies like Bandai, and quite often, major anime retailers like Toranoana or Animate, who can give input that will help make the project successful with fans. One reason these committees come into being is financial -- having a group of experienced individuals be responsible for a project and makes it easier to raise funds -- but it also spreads responsibility around to more members. When Steamboy, the most expensive anime film ever made, failed to make back even half of its $26 million price tag, I'm sure Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo was glad to have had the Steamboy Promotion Committee to take some of the blame off him.

Each language is unique, and presents special challenges to learners coming in from other language groups. For example, Chinese or Thai are tonal languages, Romance languages have noun gender to keep track of, and so on. According to the J-List staff, the most difficult areas of learning English are the "helping verbs" that fly around English sentences ("she shouldn't have been able to drive, should she have?"), or knowing whether to answer a statement with a tag question on the end in the positive or negative ("You're Japanese, aren't you?"). The Japanese language also has some rough patches, beyond the obvious challenge of mastering kanji, which include getting used to grammatical particles that "mark" the parts of sentences, including the often-confusing "topic marker" (wa) and "subject marker" (ga) of a sentence; getting used to verbs coming in formal and informal forms; and (as a male) learning not to imitate female speakers too much, since you can easily find yourself speaking effeminately. Happily, Japanese is not an especially difficult language to pronounce, once you train the muscles in your mouth to say the five vowels, which are "a" (ah), "i" (ee), "u" (oo), "e" (eh) and "o" (oh). These sounds are so tightly formed compared to the "lazy" sounds of American English, though, that I've actually experienced muscle pain in my mouth from speaking too much Japanese.

There are certain mysteries associated with living in Japan, as any gaijin will tell you. Why does your boss say so desu ne ("Yes, that's so") right before shooting your idea down? Why are some trains called nobori (climbing) trains and others kudari (descending) trains? (Trains headed in the direction of Tokyo are the former, and away from the capital, the latter.) Why do stores suddenly start playing Auld Lang Syne from speakers fifteen minutes before closing? (To politely let you know you should complete your purchase and leave.) Then there's the great mystery of the kanji characters for "small" and "big" (sho and dai) which you see on most toilet flush handles. Although Japan is generally wasteful when it comes to its natural resources, often covering the sides of mountains with concrete just in case there might be a rock slide someday, it has a green side too, taxing less efficient car engines at a higher rate, selling refill versions of products to cut down on trash volume and promoting low-energy lighting. Japanese toilets are set up to conserve resources, too: you can turn the handle to the right to perform a normal flush ("big"), or hold it to the left for a few seconds to just let out a little bit of water ("small"). It took me a few years to make the connection, but of course the "small" character stands for shoben (meaning number 1, literally translated as "small convenience"), while the other turn of the handle stands for daiben (number 2, or "big convenience"). One more mystery solved.

As you probably know, J-List sells a wide range of delicious Japanese snacks, with the newest releases from companies like Glico, Meiji, Morinaga and more always on the site. Although our Japanese snacks are fun to much on any time, they can also make great gifts for the upcoming holidays, and what's why we've added a new Best Snacks Stocking Stuffer set, featuring a selection of the best snacks we carry, from Meltykiss to Kit Kat to Pocky to Meltykiss and that delicious Charcoal Roasted Coffee Candy.

Monday, November 12, 2007

All about Japanese swords, thoughts on the "horse with a heart mark" and government, and, can you ski?

Japanese swords are famous around the world, up there with ninjas and Hello Kitty as a symbol of the country. Like the kanji writing system and Buddhism, sword-making was imported from China, and was immediately embraced by Japanese craftsmen who sought to perfect the art. Most famously worn by the samurai warrior class between the 14th and 19th centuries, it was common to carry both a long katana sword and a shorter blade, called a wakizashi. The law that governs carrying of weapons in Japan is known as the Firearms and Swords Control Law, something I've always been amused by, since one doesn't usually worry about something like the need for "sword control." While samurai swords are quite common in Japan -- my wife's parents have a pair of swords on display in their bedroom -- it's rare for one to be used in a crime. But that's just what happened in Tokushima Prefecture, where the president of a construction company who was known for his collection of ancient Japanese swords seems to have gotten into a heated argument with his son about something. Things got out of hand, a sword was drawn, one managed to kill the other before taking his own life. (Police are still investigating the details.)

There's a new "horse idol" in Japan's racing world that's claiming the hearts of fans. Her name is Treasure Smile and she's popular because she's got a natural heart shape on her head, which has caused thousands of fans to flock to Iwate Prefecture in Northern Honshu to take pictures of the "horse with the heart mark." The local track is milking Treasure Smile's popularity for all its worth, advertising that anyone wearing a heart on their clothes can get into the races for free. Along with boat and bicycle racing, horse racing is popular in Japan, and there are thirty tracks in various places around the country. It's also one of the many areas of society that the Japanese government is heavily involved in, much to the confusion of gaijin like me who wonder why the government needs to be operating race tracks at all. Unlike the U.S. with its tradition of individual sovereign states, Japan's history since the Meiji Restoration has been one of modernization from the core outward, with the government taking an active role in a range of industries from the publically-run Japan Tobacco which once controlled the distribution of all cigarettes and salt in the country, to the sprawling Japan Post Office, which operated as the world's largest savings bank and also sold life insurance on the side. One by one, these industries have been slowly privatized, with the old Japan National Railways becoming JR and the inefficient government-run phone company becoming the modern NTT. Presumably these moves have improved efficiency and competition, although the invisible bonds between these former public entities and government are still significant.

Suki desu ka? One of the first useful words a student of Japanese learns is how to say "like" (suki), which is pronounced quickly so that it sounds rather like the English word "ski," leading all students to immediately make the joke Sukii ga suki desu ka? (Do you like to ski?), since the words sound similar. The word suki is often a student's introduction to the concept that a word or idea in one language might have many possible meanings in another language, depending on the situation. Right off the bat, suki can mean "like" (in the context of your favorite food or hobby) or "love" (when said in reference to another person). Like all Japanese words there's some ambiguity involved, which is the subject of more than a few melodramatic misunderstandings in anime or television dramas. For example, if a woman was looking at a cake and said suki desu, she could theoretically be expressing her love of cake, or else she could be confessing her feelings for a boy who was also in the room. A couple of years ago I saw a variety show in which former JAV actress slash novelist slash TV talent Ai Iijima walked around New York, asking Americans Kyonyu suki? which sounds like "Can you ski?" in English, but is really asking if they prefer women with, er, large oppai. It was funny to see the Americans on the show nodding their heads for the camera at her question. Try it on your friends!