Saturday, March 08, 2008

"Wii" Want You To See the J-List Team, and Know Our Prefecture

Want to see the J-List team? We've updated the About J-List page to show all of our current staff, as well as some nice images from our home prefecture of Gunma to help you understand the kind of place we live in. We think that being able to see the Japanese and American staff members you'll interact with when you order from our site will add a new dimension and help bring you closer to J-List. "Wii" think you'll like the new page!

Part of Peter's Unified Theory of Japan is that America is a country of idealists while Japanese are generally pragmatists. In many areas of society, Americans seem to reach for the stars, trying to attain great goals like total equality between the sexes and different races, holding down taxes down while guiding democracy all over the world, including Iraq. Japanese, on the other hand, seem to have a national joshiki, a "common sense" that all Japanese tend to share, which tends towards more realistic goals. While there are laws against sexual discrimination or harassment in the workplace, the roles of men and women are more clearly defined in Japan. For a family to be happy, the husband should be the daikoku-bashira (lit. "big black pillar") that supports the house financially, and so, the number of women who desire high-paying careers is much lower here than in the West. Kids should go to school to receive an education that makes them feel that they're a part of the larger society, and so there is no homeschooling in Japan. The ultimate pragmatic slogan in Japan is one you can hear quite often: sho ga nai, or "it can't be helped, so I guess I'll just do nothing." To be honest, it's kind of refreshing living in a society that admits that there are things beyond its ability to change. What do you think?

Oh, and if you find you don't have enough common sense, there's a DS game to help you out. Just ten minutes a day!

My First Impressions on Japan, Incl. "Fancy Shop" and "Viking"

You never forget your first impressions of something. Although it was seventeen years ago, I still vividly remember my arrival in Japan, and how strange everything looked to me. Beyond the obvious "my, what a lot of Japanese people there are here!" thoughts that sprang into my mind or thinking that every house was a beautiful temple just because it had ornate kawara roof tiles on it, I remember not being able to take my eyes off the many vending machine I saw all around me, which were so clean and brightly lit. I'd prepared myself for difficulties in using Japanese to communicate, but I didn't bet on my English coming up short -- and yet there seemed to be all kinds of English words that I couldn't understand, like "fancy shop," which I now know is a shop that sells cute things like Sanrio toys and stationery; or "viking," which has come to mean an all-you-can-eat buffet. But just like the Japanese proverb sumeba, miyako translatable as "if you live in a place, it will eventually become like the capital city to you" -- or "home is where you hang your hat," as we gaijin say -- people can adapt to anything. Before I knew it, I'd not only gotten used to thinking of my strange life in Japan as "normal," I'd even experience reverse culture shock when I went back to the States.

Japan's Food Problem and a Possible Solution?

Last time I talked about some of the interesting discussions I've seen on Japanese TV shows, even about subjects that one might think would be difficult to debate openly. One of the topics on the "If I Were Prime Minister" show recently was whether Japan should try to be more self-sufficient in light of the food poisoning scare involving frozen Chinese gyoza dumplings that had been tainted with fertilizer. Although everyone thinks of Japan as an industrial powerhouse, its economy is quite geared towards agriculture, with fields squeezing out a crop of rice and of wheat per field per year, or growing other things like grapes or sweet potatoes or those delightful apple-pears. However, with a population half the size of the U.S. crammed into 1/25th the area, it's pretty much impossible for Japan to feed itself. The country is only able to produce 39% of its own food as measured in calories, and thus relies heavily on imports from the U.S., Australia, China and so on. Japan is so dependent on outside countries for its food that trends on the other side of the world can easily affect it, like Canada and Brazil moving away from producing soybeans and towards growing crops for biofuel, which hurts Japan's traditional foods like tofu, natto and miso soup. And yet, Japan's agricultural system is still built around small units, "mom and pop" farms in which the husband often works a normal job to make ends meet, or extremely small companies often operating with limited resources -- basically, the exact opposite of the mammoth agro-business firms you find in the U.S. It occurred to me that one answer to Japan's food quandary might be to take steps to allow more land to be managed by larger companies who would bring greater efficiency and increase production. For some cultural reason that is incomprehensible to me, this doesn't seem like a solution that has occurred to the Japanese, which of course might be for the better, of course, in the end.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Are You a "Going My Way" Person?

One of my favorite words of Japanese is actually wasei eigo or "made-in-Japan English." It's the phrase "going my way," and it refers to people who live life in their one way without being overly concerned with society all around them, free to ignore social rules as they choose. As with the word "my pace," it's used as a fixed phrase no matter what the subject is, which makes for some strange sentences like, "That person over there is really 'going my way.'" Another word that changes when imported into Japanese is "free." While the term most often has to do with absense of cost in English, in Japanese it's more about freedom of choice, so a "free ticket" here would be a ticket that let you go on any attraction rather than one that didn't cost you anything. A shirt that says "free size" will supposedly fit anyone (although large gaijin like me know better), and when a Japanese person goes to sell something at a flea market, in his mind he's really going to a "free market" where anything can be bought or sold freely. Are you an "about" person? The Japanese use this English preposition as an adjective meaning vague or imprecise. Messing up English can be fun!

Open Discussion on Japanese Television, with Bakusho Mondai

I've often been impressed with the open nature of discussion I've seen on Japanese television, with several shows that really present opinions to viewers in innovative ways. One is a show called If I Were Prime Minister, which features the popular comedian Hikari Ota of the comedy duo Bakusho Mondai as he throws out topics to a panel of guests that include actors, writers and real sitting politicians. They never pull punches as they lambaste a panel of Finance Ministry employees over the lost pension payment scandal (while letting the employees tell their side of the issue), or call in doctors to discuss issues like the rise in hospital deaths due to doctor error. Considering what a peaceful country Japan is, you'd think that it'd be difficult to have a real public debate over the issue of whether Japan should Japan arm itself with nuclear weapons in response to threats from North Korea, yet that episode was lively, with all participants expressing their views despite the special nature of the topic in a country that's experienced two atomic bombings. Another show that's quite interesting is Live Debate Until Morning, a late-night show in which top-ranking politicians and members of the current cabinet will gather to discuss issues on live television until 4 am while millions watch. Since the show is so popular, every major politician makes sure to be included, and smaller parties are all invited to participate in the discussions, which keeps things from begin pulled unfairly in any one direction.


All About "Mascot Characters" in Japan, and Nara's Ugly Buddha

One thing about the Japanese: they love kawaii, or cute, and this often takes the form of "mascot characters" who promote everything from sporting events to public television and even Japan's military. They have mascots in the U.S., too, of course -- I remember doing my homework while sitting on the grass next to the statue of Monty Montezuma at SDSU -- but the Japanese really take it to a new level. One area where you often see these cute characters is government-affiliated organizations, which use them to soften their image with their constituents. Some publically-created mascots include Narita-chan, the official character of the Narita International Airport, the Noppon Brothers, who raise awareness of Tokyo Tower, and the cute uniform-wearing horse characters that are the public face of the Gunma Prefectural Police. Companies often create cute characters to help sell their products, like Kyoro-chan, the little round bird that's been promoting Morinaga's Choco Ball line of tasty snacks for forty years. Sometimes making cute characters to promote your cause can have the opposite effect, which the city of Nara found out recently. As part of an upcoming $95 million celebration commemorating the founding of Japan's first capital 1300 years ago, the city commissioned a new character that's basically a cross between a deer and an image of Buddha, since Nara is famous for these two things (the city is home to the largest bronze status of Buddha in Japan). But there've been widespread complaints that the character is ugly and an insult to Buddhists, as well as a big waste of taxpayer money. What do you think?

Monday, March 03, 2008

What Color "Randoseru" (School Backpack) Are You?

In the U.S., "back to school" season is in August, when parents prepare for the start of the new school year in September, buying new shoes and notebooks and clothes for their kids. In Japan, the school year has always started in April, seemingly timed to coincide with the cherry blossom season, and right now parents are bustling as they try to get everything ready in time. Education is taken very seriously in Japan, and in the case of new first graders, families will go all-out to make sure the child gets off on the right foot. First, every student must have a a desk to do his or her homework at, and there's a huge industry of companies selling stylish and functional study desks for kids, which include features such as a plastic sheet with images from the latest popular anime series printed on it, which can be removed later when the child is older. Another important choice is what kind of school backpack to buy. School backpacks are called randoseru, from the Dutch word ranzel, and they're extremely well made hard leather backpacks designed to hold everything the student needs over six years of elementary school. Right now stores are filled with an array of smart-looking school backpacks for parents to buy for their children, and every year manufacturers seem to offer them in a wider array of interesting colors. This move to offer more color choices is somewhat odd, since for 99% of children you see walking to school, the color of a randoseru is black for boys, red for girls, with almost no exceptions. A lot of this is cultural -- in a country where not standing out is extremely important, the idea of being the only kid with an orange or sky blue or yellow backpack would be quite unthinkable.

Japanese school backpacks

Employment at Japanese Companies is Down

I caught a report on TV the other day about a unique problem Japanese companies are facing. It seems that the best young employees aren't that interested in working for companies like Honda, Mitsubishi and Sony, and instead are looking to join Google, Nike, Nokia or Microsoft if they can. These are gaishikei or "foreign capital" companies, a term which is loaded with images of open, flexible corporate culture where individuality and fresh ideas are encouraged rather than hammered down like the proverbial "standing nail." While working for a Japanese company offers more stability and less fear of sudden risutora (layoffs, from the word "restructure"), young people today prefer to work in an environment where they can make a more active contribution and distinguish themselves. The trend is supposedly happening in China, too, where U.S. firms like Motorola and Intel and are proving better at winning top applicants than Japanese companies. One job-seeker interviewed said, "I have the impression that in U.S. and European companies, I might be fortunate enough to have an idea of mine accepted and turned into a product, allowing me to see the fruits of my hard work. But this would be difficult in a Japanese organization." It's a long-term crisis for Japanese companies, I'd say: the kind of bold energy that led to game-changing ideas like YouTube or even Toys R Us just couldn't have emerged from inside Japan, since so many industries are dominated by large, hide-bound companies. There's another reason Japanese might prefer to work for foreign-based companies: being able to say that you work at BMW or Intel is extremely kakko ii (kah-ko EE, cool), and anyone with a career with a well-known foreign company will surely become popular with members of the opposite sex.

Robots in Japan and Lego MindStorms Soccer

The Japanese have a long history with robots, going all the way back to karakuri ningyo, mechanical dolls that mimic human movements and do things like serve tea and bow to guests, which date back to the 18th century. (If William Gibson is reading this, there's a steampunk book idea here, I just know it.) Today, robots play a relatively large part in daily life here, from assembling cars to acting as robotic pets to occasionally saving Tokyo from attacking aliens. Universities and companies in Japan invest heavily in the development of new kinds of robots, like the famous Asimo who can walk up and down stairs or a female robot that struts in a sexy manner to get your attention, with the the Holy Grail being to create a robot that can take care of Japan's aging citizens. On Sunday I spent the day at the Robocup Junior Championship, where ten teams did battle with soccer-playing robots based on the Lego MindStorms platform, zooming around a game field searching for a ball that they could "see" with a light sensor and figuring out the best way to propel it into the goal. It was very exciting -- the final match came down to one team of robots using the current NXT generation of MindStorms and a team using the older RCX series, which has stronger motors. In the end, the older generation prevailed, but my son's team did well enough to get invited to the regional championships in Tokyo -- he was thrilled.