Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Things About Japan, and Lost In Translation

There are many good things about living in Japan. For one thing, it's a world of potentially endless mystery, where stepping out your front door can be an experience worthy of Lost in Translation, potentially confusing but in a wonderful way. Many Japanese are obsessive about their own particular hobbies, and if you have a passion for, say, anime, doujinshi, martial arts or building robots, you'll probably find like-minded people who understand where you're coming from here. Gaijin in Japan certainly stand out a lot, which can be good or bad, depending on whether you're talking about school kids staring at you as if you were a yeti or waking up to find a girl's phone number scrawled on a chopstick wrapper from last night. Yet like any other country, Japan is not without its imperfections. Japan is a kanji country, and you never know for sure which road signs or train maps will feature English, making it a challenge to do certain things here if you don't read Japanese (although picking up reading skills is honestly not that difficult). Another downside is allergy season, thanks to the visionary Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, which decided that it'd be a great idea to standardize on exactly one type of tree for forestry in Japan, the sugi or Japan Cedar. When these trees start to pollinate, millions of Japanese come down with terrible hayfever. It gets so bad there are actually "pollen forecasts" on TV to tell you when it's safe to go outside or hang clothes out to dry. Right now we've got a double-whammy of cedar pollen and kohsa, the "yellow sand" that blows over from China, making it impossible to keep your car clean.

Lost in translation

History of Buddhism and, My Daughter Sees Dead People

The history of Buddhism in Japan is long, going back to the very beginning of the country's historical age, since Buddhism and kanji were imported together and are inseparable from Japanese culture. The religion was introduced to Japan either in 467 A.D. from China, according to a Chinese account, or 552 A.D. through Korea, according to the Nihon Shoki, one of the oldest historical documents from inside Japan. While one might think that Japan would have a feeling of brotherhood with other Buddhist countries such as Thailand or Tibet, in reality the local flavor of Buddhism is so different that I don't think there's much of a connection. There's a special time of year in the spring and fall called Ohigan (oh-he-gahn), literally "the other shore," a time for people to visit their parents' homes for a good dinner, then light a stick of incense in memory of family members who have died (who have gone to the other shore). Last night my father-in-law visited his relatives and took my daughter with him, since she wanted to visit the grave of her grandfather's side of the family. My daughter has a reputation in our family for being very spiritual, and she caused a stir when she told everyone that she could see a flowing white figure standing near the Buddhist altar. Maybe she had reached out to the other shore?

Big Buddha of Kamakura

Meet Doraemon, Japan's New Anime Ambassador

Japan has a new ambassador, and it's...Doraemon? Yes, the well-known robot cat from the future has been designated as the official Goodwill Ambassador for Anime Culture in a ceremony held yesterday at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Recent years have seen a growing awareness on the part of the Japanese government that anime, manga, video games and related culture were making a significant contribution to Japan's image in the world, and the government is using the famous character to try to improve relations with the nearby countries of Asia, where Doraemon is a household name. I totally agree that popular culture is a great basis for communication between people, a thought that occurred to me when my daughter was three years old and hadn't learned English yet, although she had no problem communicating with my American nephew because both could speak "Pokemon." There's no word if Ambassador Doraemon will be using official government transportation when he makes his goodwill visits, or if he'll be making use of his Dokodemo Door (Go Anywhere Door), one of the futuristic devices he can pull out of his fourth-dimensional pocket.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Slow Simmer: Outside Influences on Japan

Although it'd be a stretch to call a homogeneous country like Japan a "melting pot," modern Japanese society does represent an enormous number of different outside influences over time. Some examples include the arrival of Buddhism and the kanji writing system in the 6th century A.D., the adoption of Confucianism as the official philosophy of Japan during the Edo Period, the era of rapid modernization and "empire envy" of Great Britain during the Meiji Period, and a total rebuilding of the nation by the Allies after World War II, which left its mark on the Japanese people in the form of the "peace" sign they make whenever someone pulls out a camera. Without a doubt, two factors that have helped to make Japan such a mysterious place when seen from the outside are its status as an island nation, which allowed the country to develop culturally at its own pace, slowly internalizing the various outside influences and making them uniquely Japanese, and the long period of sakoku ("closed country"), when almost no information was allowed into Japan from the outside, surely unprecedented in history.

Ukiyoe from the Russo-Japan War

And here we have...a lovely woodblock painting from the Battle of Port Arthur during the Russo-Japan War. Is anyone else amazed that there are ukiyoe from events that are just a century old? I had no idea...

My Recent Maid Cafe Experience

The next time you're in Japan, I suggest you check out the maid cafes that can be found mostly around Akihabara, the center for all things related to electronics, anime and fun geeky cosplay culture. I went with some friends last weekend and we had a great experience. In addition to regular menu items like curry rice, pasta and "hamberg steak," the menu lets you choose different "performances" by the maids, who will do things like blow on your food and feed it to you like a baby, or play a game of darts with you. I opted to have one of the maids draw Doraemon on my Om-Rice (an omelette eaten over flavored rice, it's heavenly) in ketchup, while a friend in our group challenged one of the maids to a drinking contest: if he could down his mug of beer faster than she could finish her iced tea, he'd get to take a picture with her, but if she won, she'd get to slap him hard across the face. He lost, and it was great fun to see him endure the slap by the pretty maid (what the hell, there are worse things that could happen to a guy). Another feature you can find in some of these maid cafes are special cosplay events in which the staff will dress up as characters from your favorite anime, like a Cat Girl Cafe where all the girls will transform into"wolf girls" for one week only, to allow customers with an obsession for girls with furry ears and bushy tails to get some special attention.

Maid cafe in Tokyo

Famous Japanese Sometimes Beget Famous Japanese

Who's your daddy? While Japan as a society is very much a meritocracy, with success largely going to those who study the hardest and get into the best universities, sometimes having a famous father or mother can give your career a boost, a phenomenon called nana-hikari in Japanese, in case anyone ever asks. Quite a few of the "talents" you see regularly on TV have famous parents, like Kazushige Nagashima, son of baseball legend Shigeo Nagashima of the Tokyo Giants, or JPOP singer Utada Hikaru, whose mother was a well-known enka singer. Lately, it seems you can't turn on the TV without seeing children of famous politicians, like Kotaro Koizumi, the oldest son of former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who was able to turn his ikemen (EE-keh-men), or Tiger Beat-esque good looks, into a successful acting career. Another staple on TV these days is Yoshizumi Ishihara, son of Tokyo mayor and author of "The Japan that can say No" Shintaro Ishihara, who is an accomplished weatherman and appears in a wide range of TV dramas and variety shows, and occasionally, beer commercials.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Way Smells Bring Out Memories

It's funny how different senses can bring out different memories. With Easter approaching, my mother sent us a care package of Easter candy from the States, which I shared with the J-List staff. When Yasu smelled the jellybeans I gave him (they were the "spiced" kind) he said, "Wow, this is what shopping malls in America smell like." Interesting, I'd never made this particular connection, but he might be right. Once I brought back some Mr. Bubble for my kids, and my son observed, "This smells like America." One of the first things I did when I arrived in Japan was head to a Seven-Eleven, since that's what Americans do, where I happened to buy a pack of gum called No Time, which brushes your teeth for you when you have no time to brush. Ever since then, I can't chew this gum without becoming extremely natsukashii (nostalgic) about those bygone days.

Hayao Miyazaki: The Tezuka Osamu of Japan. Oh wait...

Hayao Miyazaki is the animator and director that's brought so many wonderful films to the world, from Totoro to Kiki's Delivery Service to Spirited Away and many more. He was born in Tokyo during World War II, and his fascination with airplanes began early, as his family owned a factory that built rudders for Zero fighters. His mother became ill with tuberculosis and had to be treated over several years, making the events of My Neighbor Totoro somewhat autobiographical. As an animator, he delved deep into classical literary sources to come up with his amazing stories, for example creating Nausicaa from a Greek princess seen in Homer's Odyssey and a classical Japanese tale from the Heian Period about a headstrong princess who dared go out without blackening her teeth (which was very big back then) and who loved insects. Yesterday I finally made it down to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo, and it really was a memorable experience. The museum is filled with great things to see, from sketches Mr. Miyazaki did in creating his many works to books of flora and fauna used by the animators for inspiration as they drew to a giant cat bus for kids to play in and a life-sized robot soldier from Laputa. If you ever plan to come to Japan, you positively have to go. (Just a reminder, tickets must be purchased in advance.)

Giant Laputa Robot at Ghibli Museum