Saturday, May 03, 2008

All About Japanese Females

Being a healthy male, I'm naturally fascinated with the opposite sex, and I find the subject of Japanese females to be an especially complex and interesting one. Over the years I've known many Japanese females, from students I taught English to, to girls I dated, and of course my wife, and while each of them is unique, I have noticed some patterns. Japanese females are often very concerned with how they appear to others, wanting to be chanto shiteru (roughly translatable "doing things properly, as they should be doing") in all things, and when it comes time to, say, split a lunch bill, out come the calculators so they can accurately compute the amount that each person must pay. Often, Japanese girls feel the need to cultivate a certain kawaii character about themselves, and it's not that difficult to find a girl in her high teens or twenties who thinks its cute to hold her coat sleeves in her hands to make herself look "super deformed," to refer to herself in the third person or to spontaneously channel a "catgirl" without warning. (As you can see from looking at Colonel Sanders wearing a maid costume, there's no natural upper limit to what can be made "cute" in Japan.) While there are exceptions, most Japanese girls are extremely slender, and I've known grown women here who, when visiting the U.S., need to shop at Gap Kids if they want to find their size. Thanks to eating rice three times a day, Japanese females are constipated more often than not, and spend great quantities of money on exotic Chinese herbal remedies, when all they need to do is eat a little less rice. I could go on, but I wouln't want to ruin the mystique of Japanese women for anyone, and besides, they confuse me, too. At J-List we've got a wacky line of T-shirts, polo shirts and hats that say "Now Accepting Applications for a Japanese Girlfriend" in kanji, and based on its ongoing popularity, I'm pretty sure that I'm not the only one fascinated by the enigma of Japanese women.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Old and New Things in Japan

It's always interesting to compare the differences between Japan and the rest of the world. In America, many products like Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper, Wrigley's gum and Tootsie Rolls have been around for over a century, some since the Civil War, and they continue to dominate in their respective categories decade after decade. Japanese consumers, however, seem to favor new products when they shop, forcing manufacturers to come up with fresh ideas at a faster pace. While there are some solid Japanese standbys that never change -- Original Pocky, or Peko-chan Milky Candy -- any visit to a Japanese conbini (convenience store) is sure you bring you into contact with a dozen or so products you've never seen before, like the brand-new Fanta Furu-Furu Shaker, a can of orange Fanta with gelatin in the can that makes it rather difficult to drink. The Japanese beer industry is another example: even in the small-town liquor store that my wife's parents operate, I constantly see new twists on Japanese beer being sold, like beer formulated for ladies, or beer with dietary fiber added, or beer that tries to appear "green" and somehow friendly to nature. I've been told that this is because the Japanese themselves have short attention spans, and move onto the next big thing rather quickly. While it's always nice to find an innovative new flavor of Kit Kat or a new twist on Doritos, it's also good to have a core of old favorites that never change.

Japan's Newest Internet Trend

Like most countries, the keitai (mobile phone) has become a huge part of life in Japan, and for the younger generation, cell phones seem to be supplanting the personal computer as the primary Internet device of choice. The newest trend is young people using their phones to access sites called purofu (i.e. "prof," from the English word profile, which looks very similar to "blog" when rendered in katakana), centralized services that allow people to create profiles for themselves showing their pictures, specifying their age and location, and listing their favorite music, movies or food. These purofu services are sort of like guestbooks optimized to display on cell phones, where people can search for keywords then leave comments or links and have random, meandering discussions, creating a way for lonely Japanese young people to make friends. No one knows exactly how many users of these services there are in Japan, but conservative estimates start at 1 million or more. The new Internet services aren't without problems, however, some of which came to light last week when a 17-year-old student attacked a 14-year-old in Chiba Prefecture with a metal baseball bat for writing insults on his profile page.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Sushi

Sushi is the delicious raw fish on rice eaten in Japan, and it's so popular here that we have to plan carefully when we want to go eat it, to avoid having to wait an hour to get into the restaurant. By definition, sushi is raw fish on vinegared rice, with the vinegar originally added to keep the sushi from going bad back in the days when there was no refrigeration. Although the standard cut fish perched atop a pressed piece of rice (called nigiri-zushi or hand-pressed sushi) is the most famous type, there are many other varieties, including gunkan-maki or "battleship roll" with seaweed around the outside of the rice; maki-zushi or rolled sushi; and one of my favorites, chirashi-zushi or "scattered sushi" with different kinds of fish sitting on rice, which you mix together then eat. Certain types of sushi actually contain no fish, yet are still considered sushi, including cucumber rolls and the favorite of kids throughout Japan, tamago or scrambled egg sushi. Although Japanese eat a lot of raw things from the sea, the same cannot be said of the Chinese. I've got an American friend who has a Chinese wife, and whenever we eat dinner with them I rub my hands together in anticipation, knowing that she'll give me all her sushi and sashimi.

Oops, talking about food again, and getting hungry...

Sushi

Law and the Courts in Japan

Although you probably don't know much about how the law functions in Japan, most Japanese have at least a basic idea of how the courts operate in the States, thanks to the many kaigai dorama or "overseas dramas" that are shown here. As a general rule, the law and lawyers don't play a large part in people's lives in Japan, which seems to be partially for cultural reasons and partially due to people just having a little more common sense and courtesy when dealing with each other. Awards for civil lawsuits are based on actual, provable damages, which makes it very hard for a plaintiff to get an unreasonably large judgment; in addition, lawyers' fees are based on the damages sought by plaintiffs, rather than damages actually awarded, which eliminates a lot of potential for greed. On the criminal side, prosecutors currently enjoy a mind-boggling 99% conviction rate, nearly always after a defendant makes a signed confession. There are some difficult cultural elements involved here, but the conviction rate is so high in part because prosecutors only bring cases for which they have solid evidence. Big changes are coming for the legal profession though, as Japan prepares to introduce a trial-by-jury system in which citizens will act as "lay judges" and determine the the outcome of cases. Personally, I don't think it will fly: between the tendency of Japanese to be overly group-oriented and come to agreement for the wrong reasons, the occasional amano-jaku, the kind of "absolute contrarian" that refuses to do things that are popular that I talked about recently, which in the case or something like a jury trial could really cause problems for the justice system here.

The History of Golden Week

Japan is in the middle of Golden Week, a semi-accidental grouping of holidays which gives everyone a break from normal their school or work lives. The name Golden Week was coined in 1951 when an executive at the Daiei Movie Company noticed a spike in ticket sales around these holidays, so his company started a campaign advertise the holiday week as a great time to go see a movie, in the same way that "golden time" is the best time to watch television (although we call it "prime time"). While everyone uses this label today, Japan's public broadcasting network NHK stoically refuses, preferring the term "period of consecutive holidays" as the name Golden Week is ostensibly an advertising term for a private industry. Golden Week is a major economic event both for leisure-oriented businesses inside Japan as well as for areas popular with Japanese tourists, like Hawaii, Guam and California, but the fact that several of this year's holidays fall on Saturdays may mean fewer leisure-travelers. In case you're curious, the holidays that make up Golden Week are Showa Day on April 29, the birthday of the former Emperor; Constitution Day on May 3, to commemorate Japan's postwar constitution; Green Day on May 4, a day for appreciating plants and growing things; and Children's Day on May 5, which is traditionally a day to celebrate boy children by flying carp-shaped kites which represent the boys swimming up the stream of life. Happy Golden Week, everyone!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Major Types of Bento

Bento is the famous boxed lunch consumed millions of times daily across Japan, and fast becoming a sensation all over the world. As a rule, bento lunches in Japan are almost always comprised of a quantity of rice along with meat, fish, vegetables or other foods that go well with the rice, which is collectively called okazu, the "main course." Although there are endless varieties of bento you can create, there are several well-defined categories that I'll tell you about. The most basic type of bento there is is probably noriben, white rice with nori seaweed over the rice, which you can easily make at home. Another is toriben, essentially chicken with teriyaki sauce over rice, although one of the great mysteries of Japan is that no one seems to use the word teriyaki here. I love jubako, the "stackable" bento that comes on two or three levels, and you never know what the next section will contain until you open it -- it's quite fun. When my mother-in-law was growing up in the 50s, her family didn't have much money, so she had to eat hinomaru bento, or "Circle of the Sun" boxed lunch, which is a big section of white rice with a small, round ume-boshi (pickled Japanese plum) in the center, like the Japanese flag. In general, the kind of bento lunch most men would love to eat is called aisai bento, literally "loving wife lunch," the word for the delicious hand-made lunch a man's wife will make for him. If a married man is eating bento and a Japanese person passes by, there's a 77% chance they'll smirk and make a comment about how jealous they are that you're eating aisai bento and they're not.

Spirited Away and Japanese Values

One of my favorite movies is Spirited Away, a beautiful feature film by Hayao Miyazaki with a fabulous soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi. It's the story of Chihiro, an average, somewhat spoiled Japanese girl who finds herself "spirited away" to a another world inhabited by all manner of gods and spirits, not unlike a girl named Alice who walked through a looking glass. In order to save her parents, who have become pigs, she must work at an abura-ya (an old word for a public bathhouse) frequented by various odd creatures from the spirit world. I like the movie because of the many important Japanese values that are demonstrated as Chihiro goes on her strange journey, such as the Shinto belief that there are kami (spirits) in natural objects such as rivers which we should show respect for rather than harm. Chihiro grows a great deal during the film, for example learning that good things will come to those who are industrious and work hard, a message Mr. Miyazaki no doubt wanted to send to the current generation of young viewers in the hopes that they take it to heart. Perhaps the most important thing is that she learns how to show thanks when someone does something for her, and communicate this thanks loudly and clearly as a good Japanese girl should. If you haven't seen the film, please do, it's really a special one.

Ramen as a Leading Economic Indicator in Japan

I took the kids out for ramen last night, and while we were waiting for our gyoza dumplings to be fried up, I realized something interesting: I'd been coming to that restaurant for a decade and a half, since back when my wife and I were dating, and for all that time, the prices had never gone up. It seemed incredible to me, so I glanced at the menu to be sure, but the Miso Corn Ramen was still 600 yen, and the gyoza was still 300 yen for a plate of five pieces. This is the general rule in Japan, a country which for some reason sees very little inflation in the prices of everyday goods, perhaps due to government involvement in various aspects of the economy for "stability" purposes, or for other reasons we gaijin can't fathom. Now, of course, the price of oil is finally causing some prices to inch up faster than the snail's pace they normally move at, and when the Nissin Food Company announced they'd be raising the prices of their instant noodles, it was treated as big sky-is-falling news, despite the fact that it was a small increase, and the first in no less than seventeen years. Today at lunch the cashier at the croquette shop we stopped at apologized in a meek voice that they'd been forced to raise their prices slightly, and I told her it was okay.
I hate GOT to stop writing about food in the evenings. I get so hungry...
Ramen picture