Friday, January 04, 2008

Learning about trust in a drinking establishment in Japan, why Japanese kids love New Year's Day, and what is a "tish"?

When a person goes to live in a foreign country, it's natural that he encounter some words and concepts that are strange to him, and I was certainly no exception. One of my first huh? moments upon arriving in Japan being taken to a snack, which is a small drinking establishment where you can get drinks poured for you by a pretty woman, belt out a few tunes at the karaoke machine, and get something to eat, which is where the snack part comes in, I guess. I learned something about Japan during my first visit to one of these places: there's a lot more trust here than there is back home. Behind the bar at any snack you can see dozens of bottles of whisky with people's names written on them. This is called "bottle keep," where a customer will buy a bottle for his own personal use and drop by any time to drink from it, and it struck me as amazing that he need not fear that anyone would steal from his $100 bottle. There are other examples of trust in Japan's society. For example, there are umbrellas at our local post office with a sign that says, "If anyone needs an umbrella, please use one of these and bring it back later." Anyone can borrow $20 from a police box for train fare home if they lose their wallet, which should be repaid at the police box nearest your house. They'll take down your information, but since you probably have no ID (having lost your wallet) in such a situation, it's essentially done via the honor system. Finally, if you're making a large purchase of lumber from Cainz Home, the local home center, they'll be happy to loan you one of their small trucks to get it home, free of charge -- even to a gaijin like me. I don't know about you, but I find that being in a society where the trustworthiness of people is assumed naturally is just wonderful, and I'm always careful to make sure I don't betray trust that anyone puts in me. 
New Year's Day is known as oshogatsu, written with the characters for "correct" and "moon," no doubt a holdover from the days when Japan followed the Chinese lunar calendar. It's the favorite day of kids throughout the country because of otoshidama, cash gifts that they receive from their relatives. The amount each child gets depends on the age of the child and of the relationship involved -- kids get more from grandparents than from an uncle they rarely see, for example. My kids both made out like bandits this year, getting around $200 each, although my son got slightly more since he's older, and the oldest son in our household, which carries special status. There are two benefits from this New Year's money gift tradition that I can see. First, knowing that relatives will be handing out envelopes of cash makes kids complain a lot less than visiting family, and this brings everyone together just a little bit. Also, parents use this custom to teach the value of saving money, and the idea of a child blowing all his New Year's money the next day at the toy store is almost unheard of. My son is especially good at saving, and has managed to get more than $1000 in the bank from hoarding his New Year's money over the years. I don't think I ever had that much in a bank account before the age of 25. 
Back during my days as a teacher, one of my more advanced students turned to me and said, "Peter, do you have a tish?" I wasn't sure what a "tish" was, but he made a nose-blowing gesture and I realized he was asking me for a tissue. Because Japanese is a syllable-based language in which you can express, say, the sounds ra, ri, ru, re and ro but not an "r" by itself, pronouncing English words properly can be a challenge. In addition to words like "flat" having three syllables instead of one, due to being forced through the strange filter of the katakana pronunciation system, many words end up with vowel sounds on the end, such as job (JO-bu), big (BI-gu) or end (EN-doh). My student was aware of this fact -- kind of like-ah how Mario-ah speaks-ah -- and tried to truncate any vowels at the ends of English words to make them sound more natural, which is where "tish" came from. 
J-List is coming out swinging in the new year, ready to bring you thousands of great new products from Japan. From exciting toys and anime figures to fun J-Snacks to unique traditional or just plain "wacky" things you never thought you'd come across, J-List promises to make 2008 a great year for everyone with a fascination for Japan. Let us know what we can do for you this year!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Happy New Year from J-List, observations on culture and gaijin, a dearth of new adults in Japan, and Japan as "supplier heaven"

Akemashite omedetou to all J-List readers! We had a nice, quiet New Year's Day, relaxing in the morning and watching Ratatouille with the kids, since 2008 is the Year of the Rat according to the Chinese Zodiac. After that we did what we do just about every year, going to our local Shinto shrine to pray for good luck in the new year. When we were done we wandered around the grounds, buying new omamori good luck charms for all family members and browsing the stalls that sold everything from chocolate covered bananas to takoyaki (batter balls with bits of octopus meat inside, yum). As is often the case, I found myself the only foreigner standing in a long line of thousands of people, which takes a little getting used to: the knowledge that everyone around me is pretending not to bend their ear to listen to what this American who is speaking Japanese is saying while kids stare at me like I've just arrived in Admiral Perry's Black Ships, can be disconcerting. 3% of the population of our small city is made up of foreigners, mostly from countries like Brazil, Peru and Iran, yet as usual I couldn't find a single non-Japanese on the grounds of the Shrine, preparing to partake in this fun bit of Japanese culture. I don't believe the lack of other gaijin at the shrine has to do with differing ideas on religion, as the traditional first prayer of the New Year is cultural, not religious. Instead, I think it has to do with the foreign population not wanting to accept the Japanese culture that's all around them, and the xenophobic Japanese being perfectly happy to go along with this arrangement. This is something that local governments in Japan should try to change: there should be a lot more cultural mingling between foreigners who live in Japan and their Japanese hosts, with ideas traded both ways. Well, that's my own little wish for 2008. 
In Japan, a person is legally considered to be an adult at the age of twenty, and in January towns across the country hold ceremonies celebrating the coming of age of their young people, who gather at the local Culture Hall to pose for pictures in their smart-looking new suits and colorful kimonos before enduring boring speeches from the mayor and city councilmen. This year brings a reminder of Japan's population problems, however, with official numbers published by the government setting the number of new seijin (legal adults, individuals born in 1987) this January at just 1.35 million, a 1.08% drop from last year. Notably, the number of new adults this year is even lower than the last Hinoeuma year, 1966, when millions of Japanese couples avoided having children due to a widely-held superstition that girls born in the fifth cycle of the Year of the Horse will be too strong-willed to find happiness or husbands, which yielded just 1.36 million new adults when they came of age in 1986. Many other countries have issues with declining birth rates, but in Japan, an island nation with only a small amount of immigration, the problems are magnified. 
I've written before about Japan being a "supplier heaven," for companies that manufacture products and provide services. In general, sellers of products benefit from stricter pricing models and are able to capture a greater percent of the final purchase price than in any other country. Products like beer or cigarettes sold at the rural liquor store my wife's parents run yield less a mere 5% profit for them, and many other products, from books to CDs to makeup, are generally sold with a fixed pricing structures that would be unthinkable in the U.S. today. One of the first shocks a foreigner coming to live in Japan gets is "key money" that must be paid before moving into an apartment, totalling six times one month's rent, which covers things like a deposit, a fee to the agent who found the apartment for you, and "thanks money" paid to the owner for graciously allowing you to live there. Another unique practice in Japan is hotels that charge per-person, requiring you to pay, say, $150 for one person to stay or $300 for two. Surprisingly, it's been the arrival of large American companies like the major Hollywood studios or Western hotel chains to the Japanese market that's brought about the most change in recent years, as they import more customer-friendly business and pricing models and force less efficient Japanese companies to follow or get left behind.

J-List site is temporarily down

Sorry for any inconvenience. The J-List site is currently down and images on are not working. It's a DNS issue and we're hard at work on it. Sorry to anyone trying to use the site right now. 

[Edit]  Oh, that was fast. Okay, site should be back up now!

Monday, December 31, 2007

Back in Japan and getting ready for New Year's, my respect for hard work, and a great way to get money in 2008!

Hello again from J-List. Once again we've made the hop from San Diego to Japan, traveling the 5443 miles (8759 km) from our American home to our Japanese one. The flight was fine, although bumpier than normal due to the extra turbulence in the skies in winter. 
We've returned just in time for our favorite time of year, oshogatsu, or the New Year's Day holidays. Unlike the happy, boisterous fun that is New Year's in the U.S. and elsewhere, Jan. 1 is a very solemn day in Japan. Today is New Year's Eve, and everyone is rushing around doing everything they need to get done before the holidays, like finishing up their o-soji ("big cleaning") so they can face the new year with a clean house, and readying various decorations for the home. It's customary to eat Japanese soba (buckwheat) noodles on the last day of the year, which supposedly helps everyone enjoy long lives, and December 31st is the busiest day for restaurants that serve noodles. But the most important activity that takes place on New Year's Eve is watching Kohaku, the Red and White Song Battle, an annual live show put that's been put on by NHK every year since 1951 in which female singers (the red team) battle male singers (the white team) to see which side can put on the most extravagant performances. The Kohaku show is "the" music event of the year, comparable to the Academy Awards in the U.S., and virtually every top star will be there, from Leah Dizon to Gackt to the singers in Hello! Project and enka greats Saburo Kitajima and Sayuri Ishikawa. After the Kohaku show ends at 11:45 pm, NHK broadcasts Yuku Toshi, Kuru Toshi (Year Going, Year Coming) showing solemn images of people making their way to beautiful Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, Christian churches and Muslim mosques to do hatsu-mode (ha-tsu MOH-day), the first prayer for good luck and happiness of the New Year, overlaid with the sound of a bell that chimes 108 times. Then, the TV display flashes "0:00," letting you know the New Year has silently arrived. 
Japan is nothing if not the land of the "boom," and you never know what will become popular next. Right now, thousands of cell phone users are displaying an image of the enigmatic Yoshihiro Miwa as their screen wallpaper, which is rumored to increase a person's luck with regards to money, what with yellow being the feng shui color for wealth and all. A survivor of the Nagasaki atomic bombing who went to Tokyo to become a famous cabaret singer, Miwa was very close to writer Yukio Mishima, the guy who tried to bring about a pro-Emperor coup by the military then committed seppuku when the soldiers laughed at him. Author of 20 books and an accomplished stage performer and director, Miwa-san may be most famous internationally as the voices of the wolf goddess Moro and the Witch of the Waste in Princess Mononoke and Howl's Moving Castle. If you're curious to see if this Japanese superstition is correct, try setting your cell phone's wallpaper to this picture and see if you get more money in 2008! 
One thing I really like about the Japanese is the tradition of kinben (KEEN-ben), or diligence and hard work, as an ideal for people to aspire to, essentially the local version of the Protestant Work Ethic. By and large, this diligence is usually measured in terms of time rather than raw effort, and doing an hour or two of overtime each day is probably the norm for most Japanese companies, allowing employees show their hard work to their colleagues in a unit that everyone can easily recognize, time. The highest expression of kinben is the tetsuya, the all-nighter, working so hard that you work all night long to finish your important project. If an employee in Japan works all night on a project, he will probably gain a lot of respect from his boss and coworkers (the term also applies to studying all night for a test). Recently I asked my wife what the "worst" job in Japan was considered to be, the one parents tell their kids they'll end up doing if they don't study hard (when I was a boy it was "ditch digger" but it may have changed since then). She told me that Japanese don't usually speak ill of a profession like that, since someone has to do it after all, and in fact, many of the jobs some might consider to be "bad" such as road construction or the guys that empty the BOT-ton toilets in older homes that don't have pluming yet, are actually good in a way, since they pay much higher due to the fact that few people are willing to do them. 
J-List would like to wish everyone a safe, warm and wonderful New Year's holiday tomorrow. Within the month of December, you wish someone a Happy New Year by saying yoi o-toshi o (YO-ee oh-TOH-shi oh), which literally means "[have a] good year." After January 1st arrives, you switch to akemashite omedeto (ah-keh-MASH-tay oh-meh-deh-TOH), literally "congratulations on opening the New Year." It's polite to use this second greeting the first time you see a Japanese person after the new year arrives. Well, until next time, yoi o-toshi o, everyone!