Saturday, January 19, 2008

Pictures from the J-List New Year's Party, If You Want Them

Okay, since I managed to get back earlier than I thought, here are some pictures. The izakaya was a place called Hokkatei, combining the first two characters of Hokkaido with Tei, meaning stop or in this case restaurant. Good seafood, considering we're as far from the sea as you can get.
Since Forget-the-year and New Year's Parties are quite common in Japan, restaurants like this have pre-set menus ready for us. We got the sashimi and nabe set, which was lots of fish (which you really appreciate when you come to live in Japan), and three big pots of kim-chee soup. Yum.
A rare glimpse of the J-List crew. Hilariously, the girls all sit on one side, and the guys on another side, no matter what we do. It's like we're all in Elementary School. This is us about to do the clap I wrote about in today's update. 
This is atsukan, hot sake. It warmed us nicely.
The nabe was delicious, too. This is kind of like sukiyaki, but deeper, and with different ingredients, including kim-chee, tofu, vegetables and meat. When we'd eaten it all, they put rice and crab meat in and stewed it some more and it was heavenly.
Later it was off to the karaoke box. They actually have disco balls in them, isn't that cool? Do they have disco balls in the U.S. at all? I've been gone way too long to know the answer to that.
There sure was a lot of anime and even video game music to choose from, testimony to the rise of otaku culture in Japan. Here you can see the full selection of songs from Air, one of the PC dating-sim games that was so popular they made a mainstream anime out of it.
I've posted before about how good karaoke is for learning Japanese. The only problem I had with it was, it's so effective at teaching you how to read and pronounce kanji properly, you outgrow it quickly.
Just what we all need, a medley of songs from Macross 7. Well, that was our fun little party. Hope you are going to have some fun this weekend, too. And of course, kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegai shimas, which essentially means thanks for your past support, and we hope you'll continue to help us out in the future.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Off to the J-List New Year's Party now

I'm rushing to finish this update a little early since tonight we're having the J-List Shin-nen Kai, or New Year's Party. Similar to the Bo-nen Kai or "Forget the Year Party" held at the end of the year, a Japanese-style New Year's Party is an opportunity for companies or other groups to officially mark the start of a new year, and be brought closer in the process. We've reserved a room at a local izakaya, a traditional bar-restaurant that serves delicious food in addition to frosty mugs of beer and bottles of hot sake (got to have the hot sake!). J-List isn't a very formal company, and we're all pretty relaxed while we go about our business of bringing Japanese pop culture to the world, but I'm always surprised how ceremonial these company get-togethers automatically become. Once everyone is present, the organizer of the party (Yasu does it every year) will stand up and formally announce that the party has begun. After short speeches from Tomo or myself, we'll have the kanpai (cheers) and start eating and drinking. When the beer is gone we'll gather again and Yasu will announce that the party has come to an end, upon which everyone will clap their hands together loudly once, which symbolically ends the event until next year.

Observations on Japanese education, and "No Media Day"

The other day I came home from work to spend some time with the kids, and I suggested popping a DVD in and watching it. "I can't," my daughter told me. "Today is 'No Media Day.'" This is an interesting idea that Japanese public schools have started to combat the glut of TV and video games in our modern society, and we had a fine time playing a few rounds of Uno instead. I've noticed some other interesting mechanisms that Japanese educators use to help bring students and their parents together. Recently my 12-year-old son made dinner for us, which was part of his Home Economics homework (he made a meat-and-potatoes dish called niku-jaga, an odd name because it sounds like Mick Jagger), designed to help the kids understand how hard it is for Mom to cook for everyone all the time. Then there was the time my daughter was assigned homework to help her mother around the house, which for some reason included making sure the shoes in the genkan (the foyer where people leave their shoes before entering the house) were all lined up neatly, not scattered like they usually are at our house. Compared with my own experiences in the U.S., I've noticed a lot more involvement by parents in the education of their children here, from frequent Parent Days in which mothers and fathers can sit in on classes to a system that places pressure on parents to spend at least one year in the leadership of their school's local PTA.

Juken season in Japan -- time to eat your Kit Kat!

Right now it's juken (test) season in Japan, when hundreds of thousands of high school students take the university entrance exams they've prepared for over the past three years. The tests that each student must take differ depending on what school they're shooting for. Students trying to get into a national university like Tokyo or Kyoto University -- which are the most affordable, which makes them the most popular, which creates academic competition to get in, which increases the academic stature of the schools -- must take two, a standardized test called the Center Test, then the individual test for their school of choice. Because the Center Test is so important to the futures of so many young people, the subjects that appear on it help determine the educational direction of the country. One reason the Japanese aren't generally proficient at using English despite six years of study is that the Center Test requires only knowledge of grammar, vocabulary and the ability to puzzle out listening comprehension questions; since using English to communicate in any way isn't on the test, it's completely ignored by students. Due to a happy linguistic accident, the name Kit Kat sounds similar to kitto katsu ("you will surely win"), which has made it the official snack mothers give to their kids to munch on while taking their tests. To commemorate the season, Nestle has just released the new Sakura Kit Kat for 2008, which we've got on the site now.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The rivalry of Universities: Keio vs. Waseda

Have you ever noticed that when two groups occupy a similar space, rivalries emerge? Whether you're talking about Mac vs PC, Coke vs Pepsi, or the national rugby teams of Australia and New Zealand, each party will try as hard as they can to win against their hated rivals. The top two private universities in Japan are Waseda and Keio, and like Harvard and Yale, the schools have a rivalry that goes back to their founding a century ago. Keio University was founded in 1858 by Yukichi Fukuzawa, a visionary who travelled to the U.S. to study education at Brown University; he also promoted public education of all children and launched an influential early newspaper. Waseda was launched in 1882 by a former samurai named Shigenobu Okuma who had been taught English by a missionary in Nagasaki using the Bible and the Declaration of Independence as his study guides. Today the rivalry between the two schools is fierce, with Keio students mocking the name of Waseda for containing the characters for "rice field" and laughing at the many used book stores that can be found around the campus, implying that the students are too poor to buy new books, while Waseda-ites dislike the snobbery of Keio's wealthier students. Everything comes to a head twice a year with the So-Kei (Waseda and Keio) baseball match, which is watched by so many students that classes at both schools have to be cancelled. The rivalry between Waseda and Keio extends far beyond the current generation of students, since many members of the government are alums of the two schools. When Japan moved to update the faces appearing on its currency a few years ago, Prime Minister Koizumi (a Keio alum) made darn sure that no one removed Mr. Fukuzawa from the 10,000 note, which was the only bill that didn't get refreshed.

Japan's Wonderful TV "Talents"

Spend a little time in front of a TV in Japan and you'll see more than a few interesting "talents" (tarento), which is a generic word for any comedian, actor or other famous person who appears on TV regularly. These TV stars come in all shapes and sizes, from super cute models like Aki Hoshino and Yuko Ogura, to Speedo-wearing comedian Yoshi Kojima whose signature joke (shouting sonna no kankei ne! or "But that doesn't matter right now!" as often as possible) became a national past-time, to exotic gaijin talents like Bobby Ologon from Nigeria. One star who's been seen on J-TV quite a bit lately is Natsuko "Gal" Sone (SOH-neh), a 5'4" Japanese girl who could probably eat more than you or I could in a dozen meals. A professional "gluttonous eater" who has competed in several competitive eating contests in Japan as well as Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, she has a seemingly endless ability to wolf down sushi, ramen, or mayonnaise pizza (her favorite food). You can usually find her appearing on one of Japan's many variety shows, chatting with the hosts while casually shoveling more food down her gullet. Usually when I watch Japanese TV, I'm on the lookout for yarase, or faked content designed to make for interesting viewing at the expense of honesty, but Gal Sone seems to be the real deal since she eats everything in full view of the cameras. Despite her huge appetite, she weighs only 95 lbs (43 kg).

The uncanny ability of the Japanese to deal with crowded spaces

It's natural for the Japanese to be more skilled at some things than folks in the U.S. or Europe. For example, the Japanese are certainly better at performing detailed, meticulous tasks such as designing small machines or perfectly painting Gundam models, and are also very creative when it comes to making new English words (Meltykiss, yum). Similarly, the Japanese seem to have an aesthetic sense that I think most Westerners lack, an ability to arrange something as mundane as food in a way that brings out its bi (beauty, pronoucned like "bee"), as you can see with bento and other types of Japanese cuisine. Another area the Japanese definitely excel at is dealing with the cramped and crowded spaces that are all too common here. At the Comic Market, the doujin convention held twice a year at Tokyo Big Sight, around a half million people need to make their way into the halls and find the artist circles whose books they want to pick up. Buying comics from popular circles means standing in line, which is extremely difficult to do when there are thousands of people milling all around you. Somehow, though, a line manages to form despite all the chaos, with the last person in line politely holding a sign that indicates that this is the place for new people to line up. One of the most important virtues for a Japanese person to have is gaman, the ability to endure an unpleasant situation, and you can really appreciate a society in which everyone understands the importance of being polite to others when there are that many people around you.

Monday, January 14, 2008

How to make a fool of yourself in front of a famous Japanese artist

One of the defining features of the Japanese as a people is that they are generally kenson (KEN-son), that is, humble and not boastful. If you've ever tried to compliment a Japanese person on something such as their English ability or how smart their kids are, you may have experienced a strong denial that can be confusing to Westerners. I was reminded of this during the San Diego Comicon a couple of years ago. While setting up our booth I happened to see a Japanese-looking girl with a badge that read Junko Mizuno. Being a complete idiot, I didn't realize it was the artist herself, and I actually said, "Oh, you have the same name as that famous artist, how interesting." The girl, who is so small-bodied she could have passed for a sixth grader, blushed red that anyone would think her famous, despite her many published works all around the world. One word the Japanese use when receiving some kind of compliment is okage-sama de (oh-KAG-geh sah-mah deh), a phrase which literally means "thanks to you," which is a little weird since the person doing the complimenting probably had nothing to do with the acquisition of the skill in question. Often when you say something nice to a Japanese person, they'll turn the kindness back onto you with this phrase.

Barrier to white people learning Japanese: Kanji

Without a doubt, one of the big barriers to learning Japanese are the kanji, the Chinese characters that communicate meaning in written Japanese. Elementary school students start learning kanji in the first grade, starting with the simplest character there is (ichi, the number one, written 一) and going all the way up to the last character of the sixth grade (hai, meaning ash, written 灰). Although many might blanch at the idea of mastering the entire list of 1945 joyo or "general use" kanji, what you need to be considered literate in the language, it's really not that bad if you take it a step at a time. In recent years, the rise of waapro (word processing) and computers has brought a real change in how people work with their writing system. Since characters are written by hand less often, instead increasingly typed using a computer keyboard or cell phone's keypad with the correct character picked from a list, many Japanese (and gaijin, like yours truly) lose much of their ability to write the characters, although the ability to read them is usually not affected. The problem is pretty widespread, with Japanese people from all walks of life generally less able to write kanji than the previous generation. The other day I caught a TV show called Neptune League in which teams of famous people -- say, female TV announcers, who are all supposed to be very well educated -- ride in a train traveling through a computer-generated mine shaft. Words fly out at them, and they must correctly write the kanji characters on the screen or the CG car will be sent crashing to the bottom of the shaft. It's quite an interesting show -- everyone in our family gets quite excited as they try to write the correct answers before the timer runs out.


Eating "ekiben" (train station bento) on the Shinkansen

On Sunday I took my son into Tokyo to check out an exhibition on robots at the National Science Museum, where we got to see the famous robot Asimo that can climb stairs and play soccer. We took the opportunity to ride the shinkansen, Japan's famous bullet trains that zip along special elevated rails, which is my all-time favorite way to travel. My son told me he wanted to eat ekiben, the traditional bento boxed lunches that are only sold at train stations. Each Japanese city makes its own unique train station bento lunches, like Masu no Sushi (a round disc of rice with salmon on top that you eat like a pizza) from Toyama on the Sea of Japan, or the famous Kanimeshi (crab meat bento) from Hakodate, Hokkaido. The symbol of the city of Takasaki (where we catch the train) is the Daruma, those round red figures that are displayed in homes and businesses to bring good luck, which are representations of Bodhidharma, a historical figure from India in the 6th century who founded the predecessors to Zen Buddhism and Kung Fu, and who attained his unique round shape by fasting and meditating for so long that his arms and legs disappeared. When it came time to choose which lunch we wanted to eat, we naturally picked Daruma Bento, and ate it in the train as the countryside sped by.

Daruma-ben

Making some changes to the blog

Just a heads up, I'm going to be making some changes to the way I do the blog posts. Instead of one "super" post with several subjects and today's newly posted items, I'm going to start doing smaller, more conventional posts in a more conventional format. I'm doing this for several reasons, but one of them is so that someone who wants to link to a point I make from another website doesn't necessarily have to be pointing to a post with Zenra Ice Skating, or whatever the latest wacky product is. Feedback on this is greatly appreciated.