Friday, November 30, 2007

A big scandal in the Japanese Pentagon, fine dining in Tokyo, and Japan and its Beverly Hills 90210 connection.

Maybe my post on Wednesday about the Japanese not seeming to care about government waste was read by someone important. Former Vice Defense Minister Takemasa Moriya is in trouble for a sling of violations, including taking bribes ('scuze me, "birthday gifts") and other improper favors in exchange for aiding defense contractor Yamada Corporation win lucrative single-bid contracts. Moriya, an important enough bureaucrat that he accompanied former Prime Minister Koizumi to Washington and posed in pictures with U.S. administration members, reportedly received millions of yen in free golf trips and other entertainment, and even got contractors to help his daughter get into a university in the U.S. (The daughter made headlines herself when she got a hose and sprayed water on news media and Diet officials who had come to deliver a subpoena to her father.) He isn't the only one in trouble: his wife Sachiko, who reportedly demanded even more free wining and dining than her husband, was also arrested. Today Japanese prosecutors raided the Defense Ministry -- the equivalent of the Justice Department raiding the Pentagon, if you can wrap your mind around that image -- to search for additional evidence of official corruption. They should have figured the guy was crooked -- he's got the same name (phonetically at least) as the Dwarven kingdom overrun by Orcs and a Balrog in Lord of the Rings...

You never know what will become popular on Japanese television. One year it might be former Chicago Bears lineman Bob Sapp making muscle poses while the Morning Musume girls squeal with delight, then comedian Razor Ramon shaking his hips in his "Hard Gay" persona. Currently the two-person Japanese "character unit" known as Dillan & Catherine seems to be popping up on TV a lot. Comedian Takeshi Nadagi plays a caricature of Dillan McKay from that bastion of 1990s goofiness, Beverly Hill 90210, which was extremely popular in Japan and which laid the groundwork for the current "overseas drama boom" of shows like Lost and 24. He sports poofed-up hair and jutted-out chin, and he speaks using expansive, exaggerated Japanese like the voice overs of the show, since Americans are expected to be overly-emotional about everything. Beside him, Catherine is the stereotypical American girl with a blonde wig, setting up Dillan's silly "American jokes" or getting mad at him for accidentally calling her Brenda or Kelly. The highlight of each stand-up routine is when Dillan zooms onto the set on an old curved handlebar 10-speed bicycle seen in the show. As usual, it's fascinating to see pop culture continue to grow and mutate into new forms as it moves around the world, and isn't it great that the Internet lets us see it all so easily? Maybe someone will cosplay Dillan & Catherine at an anime convention in the U.S., and the circle will be complete.

The influential Michelin Guide to restaurants has come to Tokyo, with its first-ever volume published ranking 150 establishments. The result? The city's restaurants received 191 stars, even more than Paris, causing the company to proclaim the city to be the world's best place to eat. The Japanese are nothing if not fascinated with how they're viewed by Westerners -- whenever an international event like the Olympics approaches there's a spate of renovation so that everything is nice looking for visiting gaijin -- and the first printing of the Michelin Guide sold out in days. Tokyo certainly is a fun place to eat, although it can be expensive, such as the time I spent $80 for dinner and margueritas for one at Tokyo's sole El Torito's location. But the variety of good things you can find in Tokyo, from traditional Japanese to ethnic foods of every variety and everything in between, almost makes it worth the higher cost. My favorite part of Tokyo is without a doubt the Shibuya area, home of the famous statue of the faithful dog Hachiko and a huge playground for young people, with thousands of food choices compressed into a tiny space, including my favorite Italian restaurant, which advertises itself with the slogan, "A lot of people talk about Mediterranean food, but we're doing something about it!"
Fans of PC dating-sim games, we've got more good news for you: the newest title by the creator of Bible Black is in stock now. Discipline: The Record of the Crusade is a fantastic game with a huge cast of characters and tons of beautiful artwork. This classic game is on the J-List site right now, ready for your immediate order, on the J-List side.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The plight of the poor Japanese taxi driver, finding government waste very close to home, and how to sound like a dirty old man in Japanese

I wrote a couple weeks ago that taxi fares were going to be going up 7%, a rare instance of inflation in a country where prices generally stay the same for years. Unlike the U.S., Japan is a very centralized place where change always happens from the top down, and I found it interesting to note that the decision to allow the raise in rates for the whole country was handled by a single government ministry in Tokyo, not decided on a local level as you might expect. The higher rates are to give drivers a long-overdue raise, since most of them are earning what they made in the 1980s, and with no custom of tipping in Japan to help make up the difference. Not every taxi company is raising their rates, however -- some are keeping them the same, which effectively introduces price competition in an industry where none existed before. While most of the world takes it for granted that taxi drivers will usually be from some often unpronounceable country, that's not the case at all here, where virtually 100% of drivers are Japanese -- after all, would you get into a cab driven by someone who couldn't read kanji? Once, I did catch a TV show about an American who had decided to become a taxi driver and had passed all the required tests, but the fact that this was rare enough to make national TV shows how uncommon this is.

Near our house, the powers that be have decided we need a new road, which would run alongside a neighbor's vegetable garden providing us with three routes out to the main street where we currently have two. They purchased the land, brought in machines to flatten the ground and laid gravel in preparation for the construction of the road. Next they did...nothing, allowing the half-built road to sit there for months. They're waiting, I'm told, for the next budgetary cycle to roll around, at which time they'll get more money from the central government to finish the project, and we'll finally have three ways to get out to the street -- yippie. The fiscal equivelent to unnecessary surgery, construction projects are often extremely wasteful in Japan, like a 500 meter ditch dug beside a road where a 20 meter one would have sufficed because budgetary aid is only available for projects of a certain size or larger, or a bridge and tunnel across Tokyo harbor that costs $40 to use yet takes slightly longer than just driving around on the normal roads. What's amazing to me is how little anger there is on the part of taxpayers when waste like this occurs, which is related to the Japanese tradition of saying shikata ga nai (or more colloquially, sho ga nai), meaning "it can't be helped," at the drop of a hat. To paraphrase Bill Watterson, I know the government is inefficient, but why isn't it ever inefficient in our favor?

The only constant is change, and Japan has had to deal with rather a lot of change over the past 150 years, essentially, going from a feudal country still in the Middle Ages to a modern, industrialized democracy in decades where other nations took centuries. This has brought about changes in the language, as Japan was forced to interface with the outside world more. Japanese is a linguistically impoverished language, with only 5 vowels usually paired into syllables with consonants (ka, ki, ku, ke, ko, etc.), and due to a quirk of phonetics, the sounds "ti" and "di" sound could not be accurately written using the normal kana system. Without a way to express these sounds, foreign words like "Disneyland" and "party" could not be correctly represented, and would be converted to "Desneyland" and "parteh," which sound strange to the ear. It seems a "patch" was introduced at some time in the last few decades, allowing the sounds to be expressed in katakana by combining two similar characters, but unfortunately there's a whole generation of older Japanese who learned a slew of foreign loan words with the older, strange-sounding pronunciations. Now a common caricature of an old Japanese man is one who is sukebe (dirty-minded) and tries to catch a glimpse of a girl's panteh while riding the train. Since the last thing in the world a Japanese person expects a foreigner to do is use these oddly-pronounced English words, I like to go out of my way to use them just for the shock value of it.

You should see the downstairs area of J-List: it's filled with about 500 packages of every size and shape, great anime toys and calendars and DVDs and other items that we're shipping out to customers around the world. J-List is primed and ready to serve you this Holiday season, so why not take this opportunity to browse the J-List site and see what cool new items we have for you?

Monday, November 26, 2007

All in all, "here are your gums" is not something you'd expect to hear outside a discussion of orthodontics, but a Japanese friend of mine said it to me once. She was handing me a big bag of gum I'd bought that day, and had assumed that since each piece of gum was individually wrapped, it was proper to pluralize the word. Without a doubt, telling which nouns can be counted (one apple, two cars) from ones that must be organized into groups first (one bag of gum, three pieces of furniture) is a big challenge for Japanese learners of English. There's nothing like count nouns in Japanese, a language where you don't even indicate plural vs. singular unless you need to be specific for some reason, and the often arbitrary nature of them -- why are jeans and underpants counted as "pairs" anyway? -- can be a challenge. My friend demonstrated this when she wrote on the outside of a folded-up note to me, "This is not a trash!" (to make sure I didn't throw it away accidentally).

Japan is a unique place, and the economic forces that cause this kind of business or that to spring up can be interesting to observe. During my 16 years in the country, I've seen quite a few businesses that don't exist in the U.S., or if they do, I've certainly never come across them. First and foremost, Japan has a lot less space than the U.S., and in especially crowded areas like train stations it's common to see people eating tachi-gui soba, or noodles that you eat in a tiny noodle shop while standing up, with nary a stool to sit on in the whole place -- which becomes part of the fun, after a while. Normally remodeling bathrooms presents a challenge because you can't bathe during the construction, but not in Japan, where there are at least three large public bath / sauna / hot spring baths within easy driving distance to my house. If you are out and find you've had a little too much to drink, you can call a daiko, essentially a taxi service with a spare driver who will follow you home in your car, so you have it the next morning. Similarly, I've recently seen izakaya, cozy Japanese bar-restaurants, advertise a pick up and drop-off service: an employee from the company will pick you up and then drop you off at home when you're done with your party. Finally, for those times when couples feel the need to be alone, there are always Japan's famous Love Hotels, where you can enjoy a clean, private environment, with or without the Arabian Nights theme or Alcatraz theme.

You don't often think of Japan as a miltary power, but the three branches of the Self Defense Forces represents one of the largest militaries the world, ranking behind the U.S., Great Britain, France and Germany in size. Due to its warlike past, the existence of Japan's armed forces is a potentially touchy one, and the government takes certain steps to avoid having its military appear threatening to its neighbors. For example, it shortens the range of all Japanese fighters by giving them smaller fuel tanks, and never uses the word "military" (in Japanese, gun, pronounced "goon") in any official capacity to refer to itself. The Japanese are an extremely peace-loving people, so much so that there were huge demonstrations when the government decided to send unarmed peace-keepers to Cambodia in the 1990s. Japan also sent 600 SDF personnel to Iraq to assist with rebuilding efforts despite heavy political opposition, but since the soldiers are forbidden from combat, they're being defended by units from other countries. Just about everything in Japan, it seems, has to have a cute mascot associated with it, and the JSDF is no exception: Prince Pickles and his girlfriend Parsley-chan are on the job, defending peace and acting as the official face of Japan's military. Or if you prefer, check out the popular line of Female JSDF members rendered in little anime-style PVC figures, a very popular toy line in Japan now.