Friday, April 25, 2008
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
I've written before about how, while studying Japanese, it's easy to find yourself latching on to words or kanji characters as being especially kakko ii, a word that means "good style" or "cool," and one word I've always liked is amano-jaku, pronounced "Amano Jack." Originally the name of a shape-shifting Shinto/Buddhist deity known for tempting mortals into doing naughty things, today the term applies to anyone who is extremely contrarian in nature, and who avoids doing things that are popular simply because they're popular. For example, I've never in my life seen the movie Top Gun, because back when it was in the theatres it was so popular that I felt pushed away by that, unable to watch a movie that everyone was raving about so much, and in this the term definitely applies to me, and to anyone who hates being trendy. The opposite of an amano-jaku is mii-haa (like Me! Ha!), someone who loves popular things because they're popular, which happens all too often in Japan's group-oriented society.
A lot has changed in the 17 years that I've lived in Japan. I arrived here in 1991, also known as Heisei 3, being the third year of the current Emperor's reign. Although this sounds really cool if you imagine it in Star Wars terms, with the Emperor sitting in a high-backed chair or something, in reality the Japanese Emperor doesn't do that much. Back then, the Tokyo land bubble, which saw the value of Japan's capital climb higher than that of the entire USA, had just burst, but the economy was still humming along fairly well. Back in those days, it was a given that most young people entering the workforce would take a full-time job with a large company where they'd enjoy de-facto lifetime employment. Well, for males, anyway -- in those days, as now, the majority of women chose to quit their jobs within a few years after getting married, often despite spending years on their educations beforehand. After the roller coaster ride of the past decade and a half, however, many things have changed: for example the staff of J-List find themselves working in a company founded by an American, with a highly competent female (my wife) as company president. Today no one expects to be able to work at the same company throughout their career, making Japan a little more like traditional economies in the West. Perhaps in response to this general change in thinking, a sizeable class of young people who choose not to bother with full-time employment at all has appeared. They're called "Freeters," people between the ages of 15 and 34 who live at home and who are happy to bounce between part-time jobs without beginning a formal career. In order to spur the economy, the government is trying to come up with ways to get more young people to see the benefits of working full-time, including stability, opportunities for personal growth and higher income. Personally, I've long thought that Japan should institute a draft of persons between the ages of 18-20, as countries like South Korea and Switzerland do, to give Japan's youth some purpose and toughen them up for the challenges that await them in life. Young people in Japan are extremely heiwa-boke, a word that literally means "soft in the head from too much peace," and maybe serving a couple years in the Self-Defense Forces would do them some good.
Monday, April 21, 2008
Akihabara is the area of Tokyo famous for its electronics shops, and you can find whatever you're looking for there, whether it's the newest computer gadget or fifteen-year-old software for your Sega Mega Drive game console. Akiba is also the "Mecca" of otaku culture in the world, with hundreds of doujinshi shops, maid cafes and other companies selling products of interest to Japan's booming otaku generation. Take a stroll down the main street on a Sunday -- they close the whole street down since there's so much foot traffic -- and you'll see a spectacle like no other, with thousands of fans laughing, shopping or dancing while cosplaying their favorite anime characters, including more than a few males dressed up like female characters. Lately some less-than-savory elements have been showing up at Akiba, including up-and-coming bikini idols providing some, ahem, "fan service" for passersby with camera phones to increase their popularity, which tends to tarnish the area's image as a fun playground for nerdy types. As the fans get rowdier, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police have been increasing their patrols in the region, walking around and making grim faces at fans who look like they're about to start a "guerilla live" or sudden performance of anime karaoke along the side of the street. They've been checking the belongings of otaku shoppers, too, ostensibly to make sure they don't have any knives, which seems silly, given the extremely innocuous nature of most otaku types -- most of us wouldn't hurt a fly outside of a video game. There've been a lot of theories put forth about the crackdown on geekish activities, including that it's a lot safer to mess with the "A-boys" then, say, yakuza gangsters over in Kabuki-cho.
Japan leads the world in many important areas, including sporting more vending machines than any other country in the world, with one operating machine for every 23 citizens. While there are vending machines that sell everyday items you'd expect to find, like canned drinks or Pocky, it's not hard to find machines offering frozen ice cream or 5 kg bags of rice, as well as machines that sell cigarettes and beer when you slide your drivers' license in for verification. The other day I was walking around our city trying to find a shop that would give me change for a 10,000 yen note, but I wasn't having any luck since there were no regular shops near where I was. I happened to walk past our city's Passport Center, the place where Japanese citizens in our city go to order a passport, so I ducked inside to ask if they could make change for me. The lady at the counter just shrungged, gesturing to a vending machine that stood behind me, and I knew I was out of luck: the Passport Center, like many businesses, used a vending machine that dispensed tickets that could be traded for the various services they offered. This allowed the office staff to completely avoid dealing with cash, which no doubt made their operations safer and more efficient, since all the cash was stored safely inside the ticket vending machine, which could only be opened by the armored car drivers who came to empty it every day. You also find these ticket vending machines at restaurants quite often: just insert your 500 yen, hit the button for "curry rice," and give that ticket to the waitress, who never needs to touch money herself.
As a group, the Japanese are fortunate enough to enjoy extremely long lifespans, with the current average being 78.5 years for men and 85.5 years for women. There are many reasons for this longevity, including a healthier diet, an extremely safe society, and a tendency to build lifelong relationships that provide important support in later years. (My mother-in-law is still close friends with women she went to elementary school with six decades ago, something that's unthinkable to me.) Another reason Japanese live a long time is the health care system here, in which private institutions provide health services according to highly structured price schedules imposed by the National Health Insurance System. Currently Japan is going through "Health Insurance Hell" as various changes that kicked in April 1st continue to cause mass confusion. For starters, Japan used to offer free healthcare to everyone over the age of 75, but this has changed, and under the new system, some elderly users must pay a monthly premium. It's not clear which groups this applies to, however, and it's feared that the new system, which makes people pay more for health insurance the more often they use medical services, will keep sick people from going to the hospital. In addition, the government saw fit to change the Health Insurance Card from a large booklet to a paper-thin card, which is easily lost or thrown away by elderly Japanese.