Friday, June 13, 2008

The History of Doujinshi

Doujinshi are the fan-created comic-books which have become a huge sub-culture here in Japan. The word literally means "same-person-magazine" and grew out of the tradition of like-minded writers forming literary circles and publishing their short stories and poetry in the form of small-run magazines that they each contributed to financially. The history of comic doujinshi circles began in 1953 when manga artist Shotaro Ishinomori formed a group called the East Japan Manga Research Club, with another landmark coming in 1967 with the publication of Tezuka Osamu's COM, a magazine that invited readers to send in their own manga to be published. By the 1970s, university artist circles were commonplace, and early doujinshi paying tribute to the anime series of the era flourished; attendance at the nascent Comic Market doujinshi convention would grow 600 in 1975 to more than 500,000 today. Over the years, the underground comic world has served as an incubator for talented manga artists who want to go pro, and a huge number of big names started out drawing doujinshi, including CLAMP, Rumiko Takahashi and Lupin III creator Monkey Punch. This creative "DIY" esthetic extends beyond comic books, and there are many kinds of self-created works sold as doujin, including novels, BGM compositions and fan-produced computer games.

It's Me, It's Me Fraud Update

So picture this. Suddenly you get a phone call, and a young voice says, "It's me, it's me," as if you knew the person -- well, it must be your grandson, Taro. He then tells you that he's done something terrible, gotten into a traffic accident perhaps, and he needs $40,000 to pay off the other driver before the police become involved, so would you please go down to the bank and transfer the money to this account? Or maybe it's a man posing as your son's boss, who sternly tells you that your son has made an error that cost the company $50,000, which you must pay on his behalf. The most common name for these scams is Ore-ore Sagi, literally "It's Me, It's Me Fraud," and the damage from these crimes this year may top the previous record of 28 billion yen ($259 million) set in 2004, which is a lot of soybeans. Now matter how much the police try to educate citizens against the dangers of believing what strangers tell them over the phone, the situations continues. Between the high number of elderly people with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash savings and the Japanese sense of on (pronounced "own"), translatable as moral obligation to family members, it's apparently easy for these thieves to score big. One of the regular customers at our liquor shop was nearly taken in by one of these scammers, who had researched his family extensively in order to craft more believable lies.


Last time I talked about the Ainu, the original inhabitants of the Japanese islands going back to the stone age. There's one "other" ethnic group in Japan, the residents of the Ryukyu Islands, also known as Okinawa, where a big chunk of the U.S. military in Japan is stationed. A separate island kingdom until 1609 when it was annexed by the Satsuma Clan (present-day Kagoshima), Okinawa has a fascinating culture that's completely different from that of the mainland, with a unique language, social identity and architecture. (The Ghibli film Spirited Away makes use of architectural motifs from Okinawa to create a mysterious supernatural world inhabited by spirits.) Like all regions of Japan, Okinawa is famous for various foods, including goya, a bitter gourd which is fried with other vegetables, and awamori, a very strong rice wine. Residents of Okinawa seem to have gotten very good at "slow living" and are very much outside the pressures of normal Japanese urban life, which is no doubt part of the reason they have the longest lifespans in the world. I've only known a small number of Okinawans, but the few I've met have been extremely open to other cultures, speaking languages like Spanish and French that almost no one in the homogenized mainland ever masters. In much the same way that black popular culture influences overall American culture, Okinawa's "otherness" provides much-needed flavor to the rest of Japan, and many of the country's singers hail from there, like superstar Amuro Namie and Gackt. There's a whole class of eerily beautiful Okinawa-influenced Japanese songs (iTunes link) like the recent hit song Nada Sousou, one of the most popular songs on iTunes Japan, which you can purchase using our popular iTunes Japan Prepaid Cards.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Ainu

Japan is a country that likes to think of itself as coming from more or less the same genetic stock, called Yamato Japanese, which is kind of silly since you only need to meet a few dozen people here to see that there are many obvious differences in skin shade, the shape of the face and eyes, body type and so on among the "uniform" Japanese people. The original inhabitants of the Japanese islands were a group called the Ainu, which were once spread throughout the islands but were pushed northward as Japan's mainstream culture expanded out from the Nara-Kyoto area. The Ainu were quite different from the Japanese, growing long, thick beards and tattooing their bodies extensively, with women traditionally tattooing moustaches onto their faces to ward off demons. Their belief system is very close to the Japanese Shinto religion which sees kami (gods or spirits) in natural objects, and this probably formed the basis of Shintoism, although I'm not sure if Japanese like to admit that openly. The Ainu possess their own language and culture, although it's been very difficult maintaining their individuality given all the changes that have visited Japanese society over the past century, including the Soviet seizure of Sakhalin Island at the end of World War II, which forced many of the the remaining Ainu to flee to Hokkaido. Recently the Japanese Diet passed a resolution calling for the government to officially recognize the Ainu as a separate ethnic group, an important historical milestone.

ainu with beard

really attractive ainu couple

ainu hot babes

I'm Gonna Eat Some Mornin' Crackers

The other day I reached for some saltine crackers and found myself smirking at the name on the package: Mornin' Cracker. This interesting name the manufacturers had chosen for their product sheds light on the unique fascination many Japanese have with speaking "natural" English. The Japanese study English for an average of six years yet know what's being taught to them isn't a living, breathing language, and many students who do want to learn focus on what they perceive as "natural" English, which often means going out of their way to copy the slang they see native speakers using, like the alternate spelling of the -ing suffix. I've had students who refused to use phrases like "want to" or "going to," instead substituting "wanna" or "gonna" as often as they could, despite the fact that their overall language ability wasn't at the level for that to sound natural. As a learner of Japanese, there was a lot of temptation for me to use slang I picked up reading manga or heard others using, but often I found that I lowered people's impression of me when I did so, just as you might not know what to think if a slang-obsessed Japanese man introduced himself to you for the first time by saying, "Nice to meet you, Brutha." When learning a foreign language, it's best to go slowly when trying out the fun but potentially offensive slang terms you come across, and always watch the Japanese people around you to see what kind of reaction you get. If you screw something up, as I've done many times, you'll know it.

wacky crackers

Religion, Guns and Preconceptions About Japan

When I came to live in Japan back during the first Bush Presidency, I brought many things with me, including a suit, long underwear, and extra shoes, since I was sure I couldn't find my size here (turns out I had nothing to worry about there). I also brought a suitcase full of preconceptions about what life in Japan would be like, many of which turned out to be wrong. First of all, I expected Japan to be a fairly un-religeous place, but when I got here, I was immediately invited to attend the Japanese Baptist church in our city, where I learned that studying by reading the Old Testament in Japanese is very, very hard. I was also surprised at the existence of Jehovah's Witnesses handing out local versions of The Watchtower and polite Mormon missionaries riding mountain bikes while wearing ties, which they're famous for here. I was also pretty sure I wouldn't encounter any guns, since everyone knows that there are no guns in Japan, right? Imagine my surprise when a Japanese friend of mine who built high-performance racing bicycles turned out to be a hunting aficionado who owned several new and antique Remington rifles. Getting a license for a gun in Japan is very difficult, and prospective owners must undergo several months of training in their use and safety and be able to pass background and vision checks, but gun owners do exist here. I guess that's the way of it: for every impression you have of something, there are always counter-examples, waiting to prove you wrong.
Haha, love this picture. Click to enlarge.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Tragedy in Akihabara

Usually there's nothing like a Sunday afternoon in Akihabara. It's fun to roam through the many electronics stores to see the latest devices, or head into one of the anime shops to browse figures or doujinshi comics. The blocked-off street (known as "pedestrian's heaven") is so full of shoppers and tourists and fans in cosplay giving "guerilla live" street performances that it feels like a great big carnival. This happy image was destroyed on Sunday when a crazed man drove a rented truck into a crowd then jumped out and started attacking people with a large survival-type knife, eventually killing six men and one woman and injuring ten others before police could take him into custody. Although rare in usually-peaceful Japan, these bizarre knife attacks do sometimes occur, and they're called torima, roughly translated as "a devil who just happened to be passing by." Sunday's tragedy called to mind an attack on children in an elementary school by a deranged man in which eight children were killed, which in an eerie twist happened exactly seven years before this attack. All Japan is buzzing about the possible motives of the attacker, a 25-year-old temporary factory worker from Shizuoka Prefecture, who may have been set off by a mistaken belief that he had been let go from his company when this was not the case. All throughout the world and the web, people are expressing sadness over the terrible tragedy. 

"Ich bin ein Akihabarer..."

My Grammatical Problem

I've got a grammatical problem: my son, who began Junior High School in April, has started learning formal English grammar in ernest, and suddenly I'm being called upon to explain the ins and outs of past perfect, present progressive, subjunctive mood, and tense agreement to him. Back in my ESL (English as a Second Language) days, I was quite adept at teaching the rules of grammar either in English or Japanese, but it's been ten years since I was called sensei, and a lot of that knowledge escapes me now. The Japanese take English grammar seriously, and during Junior High and High School spend six years learning it in great detail, of course always discussing it in Japanese rather than, you know, English, since it's mostly considered a test subject for university entrance examinations anyway. The biggest question students usually ask is why, why do sentences like "He will have been to Kyoto five times" or "If he had gotten the job, he would have been happy" need to exist. Due to the simpler construction of Japanese sentences, most of these linguistic twists aren't needed and can't even be easily expressed, which was a real boon to me, coming from the other direction.

Summer, Mugi Tea and Cool Biz

The Japanese are a very seasonal people, doing different things at different times of year, and as the warmer weather approaches, everyone is getting into "summer mode." First of all, summer is the season for drinking mugi cha, the delicious barley tea which is consumed all around the country, since it's cold and refreshing and can be easily made with cold-water tea bags. In July and August, the summer festivals like Tanabata will arrive, without a doubt my favorite part of Japan (well, after hot springs). Summer is also time for Japan's politicians to show they're doing something about global warming by embracing what's called cool biz, a program promoted by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment every year that promotes using less electrical power by embracing clothing that allows people to be comfortable even with the air conditioning turned down. Prime Minister Fukuda (who comes from our prefecture of Gunma) held a press conference over the weekend wearing a casual shirt from Hawaii, which looked ridiculous on the man. He looked relieved when the press event was over and he could change back into a suit.