Saturday, February 09, 2008

Site Improvement Announcement

We're happy to announce some new features on the site. In the upper left hand corner of the J-List and websites you can see the new Account button which takes you do a series of screens that lets update any aspect of your account information, including changing your password or email address. You can review your order history over the past six months, too, a feature that we've wanted to bring you for a long time. In addition, we're launching a new service that let you know what the current status of your order right in the order history screen. For example, when our staff process your order and starts the packing process, the status will be reflected on the order history for that order, and when, say, a shipping label is printed, that will be posted too. The system is still "beta" but we think it will provide a lot of useful feedback for you, making it easy to see what the current state of your order is. Enjoy the new features, and as always, your feedback is very welcome!

Fun with Japanese Numbers

"You've been in Japan too long when you're speaking English with your gaijin friends, but all references to money are in Japanese." This is a funny phenomenon, but true: even when speaking English, foreigners living in Japan will tend to use Japanese for numbers and yen money amounts. The reason is that the Sino-Japanese numeric system, which came from China, is clunky when converting to the Arabic numeric system. The number system revolves around the unit 10,000 (man, pronounced mahn), rather than 1,000; thus, the number 10,000 is 1 man (ichi mahn、一万), 20,000 yen is 2 man (ni mahn、二万), 100,000 is 10 man (juu mahn、十万) and so on. The conversion from one numeric system to the other is just frustrating enough that most foreigners will be happy to leave their numbers in Japanese, if the person they're talking with understands the words. If you think it's difficult learning to think in units of 10,000, you should try doing math with the kanji-based numbers that come after man, which are oku (億、equal to 100 million), cho (兆、1 trillion) and kei (10 quadrillion, which is so high that I never bothered to learn the kanji for it).

One Small Problem with Japan: Concrete and Asphalt

Japan is a great place, and I love living here. The country is beautiful, the culture always new and fascinating, and the people are very kind. One of the drawbacks to life in Japan, however, is the abundance of concrete and asphalt around me. Roads seem to criss-cross every inch of Japan, even high in the mountains in the center of the country, and it's common for the Japanese government to cover the sides of mountains in concrete to guard against falling rocks, so you can't even see the mountain you're currently driving on. Virtually every river in the country has been extensively "engineered" to guard against dangerous floods, which can make them look quite unnatural, with reinforced concrete slopes on both sides. We have a "vacation mansion" up in the mountains around Karuizawa, which sounds really cool until you learn that the word "mansion" in Japan means an apartment that is owned as opposed to being rented. As we were driving home one weekend, I caught a really nice view of Mt. Asama, a large volcano that's erupted several times over the last century. It was spectacular, with steam coming out of the top and everything, but I was having a terrible time snapping a picture of the mountain without getting a power line in the picture. Kind of lame.

Mt. Asama, with snoke coming out of the top

Thoughts on the Japanese fascination with Europe and the U.S.

Just as many in the U.S. and Europe have a fascination with all things Japanesque, the Japanese have their own fixation with the West. A lot of this comes from Japan's unique history: for 250 years it was a "closed country," and it was punishable by death for anyone to leave Japan or for foreign barbarians to enter. The only exception was Dejima, a tiny artificial island in Nagasaki Bay, where the Dutch were permitted a trading colony. When Commodore Perry sailed into Yokosuka Bay and forced the Shogun to open his doors to trade, it was a culture shock for Japan that was not entirely unlike what we'd feel if UFOs suddenly landed at the United Nations. As the Japanese fervently studied the West they gained great respect for its accomplishments, which can take some pretty interesting forms today. For some reason Manekin Pis, that statue of a boy peeing in Belgium, is extremely famous in Japan, and there was even a punk band that named themselves the Piss Kids in homage to this, translating from the Japanese name of the statue. The story of Anne Frank is also extremely well known here in Japan (you can read it in manga form), as are stories like Anne of Green Gables. The Japanese have expressed their fascination with the city of Paris by building a scale replica of the Eiffel Tower (Tokyo Tower) and a miniature version of the Palace of Versailles, erected as a residence for the Crown Prince. And don't get me started on the copy of the Statue of Liberty in Odaiba, across the bay from Tokyo. It's all quite silly.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Sony Life Insurance? Panasonic Home? Kanebo Gum?

One thing you get used to when you live in Japan is companies selling products that are, well, unexpected from the point of view of a Westerner. Dell makes computers and Ford makes cars, but if Ford started making computers we'd all wonder what was in their drinking water. But it's quite common for Japanese companies to enter a wide range of businesses under the same brand, a concept I was introduced to at the age of five when I saw a commercial for Yamaha lawnmowers, and wondered how the company could also make the electric organ we owned at the time. You know Sony for their home electronics, but in Japan, Sony is also famous for life insurance, online banking, high-end make-up products, as well as being the licensor for Thomas the Tank Engine products. Building homes is big business in Japan, and companies like Panasonic and Toyota own companies that build homes under those brands -- there's even a builder called TBS Housing, operated by the Tokyo Broadcasting System, of all people. Mitsubishi is famous for their cars, but they're also busy making trains and home electronics and selling securities, and they are the leading manufacturer of pencils in Japan. Oh, and make up company Kanebo also markets chewing gum and medicine under the same brand. Weird, eh?

Rising Divorce Culture in Japan?

It's often said that Japan's society follows a decade or so behind the U.S., and looking at such areas as the adoption of laws about smoking in public places or child safety seats in cars, that statement seems to be pretty accurate. Sadly, Japan's divorce rate has also followed this trend, and the number of couples calling it quits is higher than ever. Currently there are 2.3 divorces per thousand people in Japan, compared with around 3.6 for the U.S, 2.2 for Canada, and 2.8 for the U.K. These numbers sound pretty much in line with the rest of the world, except when you consider that just a generation ago Japan's divorce-per-thousand was under 1. The social pressures that have been driving the increase are many, including less economic reliance on the husband by women and a decrease of stigmas about being batsu-ichi, or "one strike out," a common slang for someone who has been divorced once. A big trend is the rise in jukunen rikon, or "middle-aged divorce," when couples find their marriage can't survive the husband retiring and hanging around the wife and her friends all day (the term for such husbands is nure-ochiba, noo-reh-OH-chi-bah, a wet leaf that sticks to your shoe and won't come off, no matter how hard you shake it). This trend has been aided by recent laws making it easier for women to claim half their husband's pension if they were together for a certain number of years, which has lead to many books and articles advising women on the best "divorce strategy."

Gyoza Troubles in Japan

Japan is in an uproar right now over a food poisoning scare involving frozen dumplings called gyoza -- you may know them by their North American name of "potstickers" -- imported from China. The dumplings were tainted with toxic pesticides which made dozens of consumers sick, including a five year old girl who nearly died. The Japanese are a very group-oriented people, and when there's a general movement in one direction others are willing to follow, and right now everyone is falling over themselves to avoid all frozen foods, even products that weren't made in China. The ruckus is making itself felt in Japan's business world, too: a proposed three-way merger between mammoth Japan Tobacco and two smaller makers of frozen foods is in danger of being called off because JT was the company that distributed the problem dumplings. The whole thing kind of reminds me of the period after 9/11, when Japanese tourists stayed away from Hawaii in droves out of fear of terrorists, quite a silly thing to think, all things considered. Poison aside, gyoza is one of my all-time favorite foods in the world, and I love to obsess over the ratio of soy sauce, vinegar and spicy sesame oil that I dip them into before eating them. While the food poisoning scare has hurt makers of frozen foods, supermarkets and Yokohama's Chinatown distract, business was booming at our local ramen-and-gyoza shop when we went there last night. The "Master" (what you call the owner of any kind of small shop in Japan) seems to be doing a very brisk business right now, with many families coming to eat food they can trust.

Monday, February 04, 2008

My Favorite Japanese Food, "Nabe"

It's winter in Japan right now, the season for one of my favorite dishes, nabe (NAH-beh). The word means "pot" and refers to any kind of food you make in a big open pot and eat with everyone gathered around, conversing while taking things out (boiled meat, fish, tofu, vegetables, etc.). There are many varieties of nabe, from spicy Kimchee Nabe (as they are wont to do, the Japanese have adopted the national food of Korea as one of their own) to the famous Chanko Nabe from Nagasaki that sumo wrestlers eat. Another famous variety of nabe food is Sukiyaki, one of my all-time favorite dishes. Aside from being delicious and a great way to warm up in the colder months, nabe is the ultimate "social food" which makes for great conversation, since everyone sits around the pot to take food out of it rather than eating from their own plate. It also allows uniquely Japanese concepts like enryo, the tendency for people hesitate when taking, say, the last piece of tofu before asking of anyone else would like it, to work in the group. (We do have some great bilingual books on how to make Japanese food like nabe, although most are out of stock due to their popularity. You can backorder any of them and we'll send the when they come in.)

Thoughts on Japanese Politics

The U.S. Presidential race is on, with the various candidates debating the issues publicly as they jockey for votes on Super Tuesday. With American politics being followed internationally -- I've gotten into some fascinating discussions with friends from Australia, Canada and the U.K., who all understood U.S. politics a lot better than I understood theirs -- the issues being discussed in the U.S. right now are probably familiar to many around the world. Japanese politics, on the other hand, are a little more subtle, so I thought I'd talk about that subject today. There are three major political parties in Japan: the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled the country almost continuously since the end of the war; the Democratic Party of Japan, which currently controls one of the country's two legislative houses; and the New Komeito Party, which still has unofficial ties to the Sokka Gakkai religion, the closest thing to "Evangelical Buddhism" there is here. It's hard to define what being conservative and liberal might mean in the context of Japan, but for the most part conservatives are pro-business, favor close ties with the U.S. even if it means having to take part in overseas conflicts that most Japanese citizens are against, support rural farmers in exchange for their political support, resist pressure over Yasukuni Shrine, oh, and they naturally revere the Emperor. On the other side of the fence are mavericks like Tokyo Mayor Shintaro Ishihara, who literally wrote the book on Japan saying "no" to outside pressure from the U.S. and who has run Tokyo well even if he steps on the toes of some commercial interests. (There are some flavors of socialism, including a Japan Communist Party, but they have so little traction with voters it's almost funny.) Currently there's a spat going on inside the ruling coalition over how funds collected from taxes on gasoline should be used. Under the current law, automobile-related taxes may be used only for building of roads, despite the fact that there are plenty of perfectly fine roads already made. Conservative members of the legislation are fighting tooth-and-nail to ensure that every yen of road taxes be used for more roads, even if it means projects people won't benefit from, while their opponents push for either a lowering of gasoline taxes or loosening of restrictions on what the money can be spent on.