Friday, May 09, 2008

One of My Favorite Foods: Wasabi!

There are many strange and new tastes that await a foreigner who comes to live in Japan. Some, like pickled plums, chicken cartilage or the fermented soybeans called natto don't sit too well with me, although I've come to enjoy many other foods, including all manner of fish and other good things from the sea. (At my house, we regularly eat tako salad, which is fresh salad with octopus meat, served with a tangy vinaigrette). Another food I've really come to like is wasabi, an extremely spicy flavoring that adds so much to sushi and sashimi as well as soba and udon noodles. Similar to horseradish, wasabi has a very long history in Japan, and there are documents dating from the year 718 that mention it as a medicinal herb, which is interesting since wasabi is known to naturally fight infections and act as an antibiotic, for example killing the bacteria that cause ulcers. At J-List we have many interesting wasabi products, including the hit snack of the season, Wasabi Doritos, real wasabi in a tube, and a treat I personally love to much on, spicy rice crackers and peanuts called Kaki no Tane, which means "persimmon seeds" because of the shape of the rice crackers. Check them out!

Japanese Social Engine: the Eyes of Others

Last time I talked about what makes the Japanese the way they are, putting forth the theory that the strict Junior High School system is a major factor in shaping children into the adult citizens they'll become. Another of the social engines at work in Japan is called hito no me (hee-toh no meh), meaning the "eyes of others," essentially the ever-present invisible gaze of people around you. A friend of mine just built a house in Nagano, and he's enjoying having cleaner air and less people around him than when he was in Tokyo. His new neighborhood has a strict rule, however: trash must be deposited in the appropriate pick-up area between 6 and 6:30 in the morning, which means he has to get up extra early every day to put the trash out. If he were to break this rule by, say, putting his trash out the night before, he'd find himself the subject of the disapproving stares of the other people in the neighborhood, which is a lot harder to deal with than the threat of a monetary fine would be. This sensitivity to how you appear in the eyes of others is probably the primary reason Japan seems so harmonious when viewed from the outside, as gaijin see it. My sixth-grade daughter is half-Japanese, and she somehow managed to inherit my easy-going American personality. When my wife went to my daughter's class for parent participation day last week, my daughter threw her arms around her mother, to the shock of everyone in the classroom. Hugging your mother isn't really done in Japan, and certainly not in the middle of classroom full of the "eyes of others."

Earthquakes and Japan

Japan is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world, a fact that I was reminded of on Thursday morning when the Kanto region (where Tokyo and Gunma are located) got a big 6.7 magnitude shake that seemed to go on for two minutes or more. A staggering 20% of all earthquakes in the world occur in Japan, a chain of islands that sits astride four different tectonic plates, and one of the major challenges to the country has been how to apply its unique engineering skills to make sure buildings and people are safe. It's a tribute to those skills that Thursday's quake resulted in only a few injuries and no deaths, although it doesn't always work out so well. The Great Hanshin Earthquake (Hanshin means "Osaka-Kobe") of 1995 occurred in a region of Japan where strong quakes were less common, and as a result of lower building standards, a staggering 6400 people lost their lives. One of the features homebuilders tout on TV commercials in Japan is how well engineered their houses are, with special spring joints that allow the homes to rock back and forth flexibly in the event of shaking.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

"Haafu" (Half) Japanese, the Pinnacle of Cuteness

Wherever you're from in the world. there's a good chance that your blood contains contributions from different national groups -- maybe some German or Italian blood from this branch of the family, or perhaps a dash of Cherokee to keep things interesting. To people from the melting pot that is the United States, mixed ancestry is taken for granted, and it's quite common to talk about about where your ancestors came from with others. This is one discussion you probably won't hear in Japan, a very homogenous country where virtually everyone considers themselves to be of identical stock. The exception to this rule are individuals who are haafu, or half Japanese and half-Western, who exist in the special place between futsu (normal) Japanese and the incredible varieties of face, hair and body types seen in Westerners. To many people here, haafu seems to be the perfect blending of Japanese sensibilities and Western mystique, and there's a large group of "talents" on TV whose mixed blood helps them appeal to fans. These include popular TV announcer Crystal Takigawa, whose soft half-French appearance might subliminally lend credibility when reporting on international news; half-English JPOP singer Kaela Kimura, who got her break when she was chosen to appear in the "Have a break, have a Kit Kat" TV commercials; and of course the super-cute Leah Dizon, whose ancestry includes French, American, Chinese and Filipino. Perhaps the current pinnacle of haafu cuteness is actress Erika Sawajiri, the Algerian-French-Japanese star, who's incredible beauty has won her many fans.

The Reason Japanese Are the Way They Are: Junior High School

The question of "What makes the Japanese the way they are?" is an interesting one, and I'm certainly not the first gaijin to ponder it. While the U.S. is viewed by Japan as a "horizontal" society in which everyone is more or less equal, Japan's society is considered "vertical," with relationships that change based on relative age or status in a group. One example of this are the concepts of senpai and kohai, words that describe an upperclassman in a school or senior member of an organization, and underclassman or junior in a group, respectively. Another example is how the concept of, say, "brother" is split into separate words for older brother (oniisan) and younger brother (ototo), and it'd be difficult for the Japanese to think of the idea of a "brother" without classifying older or younger in his mind. (In the case of twins, by the way, the one that pops out first is the older brother.) My personal theory is that the the majority of Japanese social imprinting occurs in Junior High School, a unique period of three years in which students are first exposed to the strict reality of these top-down relationships for the first time. It's in Junior High that kids are forced to join clubs and engage in "club activities" with older kids, which includes greeting senpai in a loud, clear voice, showing respect at all times, and putting up with some hazing, no doubt. This period of intense social pressure seems unique to Junior High: in Elementary School, kids are still treated as kids and almost never interface with kids at other age levels, and High Schools function like a miniature version of the university system in Japan, with students choosing which school fits their study goals and academic abilities, so there's less social pressure (although there are plenty of other pressures, like college entrance exams).

This picture appears to be girls cleaning a boy's restroom in bare feet -- pretty gross. Or are they male students?

Clean those toilets, clean!

The Basis for Japanese Food Culture: Soybeans

You probably don't think of soybeans as being vital to culture, but in Japan, the lowly soybean is the most important national crop after rice. Soybeans began being cultivated in China 4000 years ago and found their way to Japan through Siberia soon after. Today many of the traditional foods of Japan are made from soybeans, including tofu, or soybean curd, which tastes a lot better than its English name sounds; miso soup, how I start my morning every day; and natto, the fermented soybeans that foreigners usually shun because of the way it smells. Soybeans are the base for soy sauce, a flavoring used more often than salt in Japanese kitchens, and they're also used to cast out "devils" (actually fathers wearing cardboard devil masks) on a special day in February called Setsubun. Another popular way to eat soybeans is as edamame, lit. "twig bean," which are boiled soybeans in their pods that are great for munching on over a beer, and healthier than anything else you could choose, too. The way the soybeans pop out of their pods when you give them a squeeze is especially fun, and there are compulsive people here who love nothing more than to order an extra large bowl of edamame and pop all the seeds out. If this sounds appealing to you, check out the Endless Edamame Keychains we've gotten in stock today -- they're great fun to play with all day long!

Monday, May 05, 2008

Zipang... Cipangu... Giapan...

The name of Japan in its own language is nihon or nippon, alternate readings of kanji characters that mean "origin of the sun," a name given it by China, written 日本. The two names are interchangeable, with nihon being used in everyday speech and nippon used in more formal situations, for example by lawmakers or the straight-laced newscasters on NHK, Japan's version of the BBC. The first Westerners heard of Japan was through Marco Polo, who wrote about a strange country 1500 miles to the East of China called Cipangu, a place of great wealth where both temples and average homes were made of gold, and where the people were very polite, although they had a strange custom of eating human flesh. The modern name of Japan has been filtered through many other languages, including traders in Malaysia   (who called it Jepang), Manchuria (Zeppen), and the Portuguese (Iapan), and first appearing in English as Giapan. For some reason, the Japanese have focused on the version Zipang as a cool, retro early word for their country, and this name is commonly found in books, video games, an anime and manga series, and computer CPU cooler.

(The anime Zipang is really good, by the way, a kind of Final Countdown in which a present-day Japanese ship is sent back to World War II...I recommend it a lot.)


The Funniest Man in Miyazaki Prefecture

Japan has been undergoing a "Miyazaki Prefecture Boom," lately, thanks to its governor, former TV comedian Sonomanma Higashi, a discovery of director/comedian Takeshi Kitano, who appeared on Takeshi's Castle for years. The TV comic gave up his career as a "talent" to run for governor of this rural prefecture last year, winning despite having no backing from any political party. Since taking office, he's shaken things up quite a bit, using his celebrity status to shed light on the wasteful construction projects that plague rural Japan and trading in his official governor's vehicle for a hybrid. Now, his face adorns dozens of products that contain ingredients from the prefecture, and it seems you can't go into a shop without seeing his face smiling up at you. Miyazaki is located in the southeast corner of the southernmost island of Kyushu, one of the early centers of Japanese civilization due to its proximity to China and the Korean Peninsula, and it's famous for mangoes, the off-season training camp for the Tokyo Giants, and a sprawling resort called SEAGAIA, which recreated a tropical beach under an 85 acre dome, although it was closed last year due to the inability of the operators to make a profit.

Japan is a Small Country

Japan is a small country, which has to fit about half the population of the U.S. into an area just 1/25th the size. This makes it important for people to use less space, and you can see many ways in which the Japanese go about doing this in their cities. First of all, many businesses such as family restaurants or electronics retailers are built up high, with the ground level clear for cars to park, which saves a lot of space. Houses with business built into them are quite common in Japan, like Seven-Eleven convenience stores with apartments above for the manager to live in, or my own house, which contains the small liquor shop that my wife's family has operated for fifty years. Gas stations need to save space, too, and many have their pumps located in the roof, with hoses that can be dropped down from above, allowing for more space for cars waiting to be refueled. For parking a lot of cars in a small area, the Japanese have automated car storage systems that will whisk your car away and store it while you shop, then return it to you when you insert your parking stub. There's even a version of this for bicycles that has just gone online, which can store 9400 bicycles in a small underground space. Of course, building up always gives you more room with work with, but it's not always possible to do that in earthquake-prone Japan, which puts extra pressure on engineers to come up with ways of doing more with less space.

Automatic car parking in Japan