Friday, June 27, 2008

Some Pictures fro the Party

Follow the Firefox logo...

I mean, they had a giant Firefox ice sculpture. How cool is that?

The Japan Mozilla organization gave a lot of speeches and there was general celebration.

I managed to run into the president of Good Smile Company, and I got to give him my own recommendation on the future of the Nendoroid line.

Firefox Party!

I took a day off yesterday to attend the official Firefox 3.0 launch party in Tokyo, which celebrated the historic third release of the great open source web browser. At the party, I wandered around a large room filled with various industry people -- developers, programmers, the occasional bigwig from Bandai or Yahoo Japan -- with everyone in attendance being Japanese, except for myself and two friends from Italy and Spain who were with me. I knew intuitively that the normal mingling you'd expect at a party like that would be a little more difficult due to the (perceived) language barrier that separated us from the Japanese around us, and we would have stood there not talking to anyone all night if it hadn't been for the natural exuberance that foreigners seem to have, enabling us to ignore whatever invisible social rules that may have been in effect and start up a discussion with strangers by, say, overhearing a conversation about Osaka and responding by doing an impression of the Glico Man, from the famous neon sign in that city. In no time, we had melted the ice and had a circle of interesting people around us, chatting about various topics. Back during my days as an ESL teacher, I quickly learned that my students responded more when I was energetic and outgoing, and in fact Japanese seem to take it for granted that foreigners will be a little more interesting in social situations than they are themselves. Incidentally, I really am happy to recommend Firefox as a great browser for everyone to use when viewing J-List or any other website, whether you're on a Mac, a PC or a Linux machine, and I'm not just saying that because they gave me free beer and sushi, although that was pretty cool. I mean, what has your web browser of choice done for you lately?

Tinkle Tinkle, Little Star

There are some words that the Japanese seem doomed to have problems with, due to the fact that their language is rather phonetically impoverished, with just 5 vowels and a limited repertoire of sounds produced normally. For example, the sounds of L and R are not separate in Japanese, which makes it nearly impossible for them to tell the difference between words like "right" and "light" without years of practice, and opening up some pretty humorous situations in election season. The Japanese are less likely to use the Internet term "FAQ" because it has the same pronunciation as another famous word that starts with F, which can cause confusion. The sound "si" is pronounced "shi" in Japanese, which of course can lead to problems when Japanese ask you, "Please, sit!" The J-List staff reports thinking that the the word "peanut," which is always pronounced as "peanuts" in Japanese (even if you're eating just one), sounds quite close to a potentially embarrassing word in English. Finally, the joker who introduced the song "Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star" to Japan might have thought it was funny at the time, but I've observed that virtually everyone here has managed to memorize the "twinkle, twinkle" part without the "w" sound. Tsk, tsk...
This is a Playstation game called Tinkle Star Sprites. 

340 mpg Savior: The Honda Cub

The most successful motor vehicle in history isn't the Toyota Corolla, and it's isn't the Ford F-Series pickup, or even the Volkswagen Beetle. It's the Honda Super Cub, the two-wheeled miracle created by the Honda Motor Company in 1958. Conceived as an easy way for people to get around cities in postwar Japan, the Cub (which stands for Cheap Urban Bike, in case you were wondering) was designed as a follow-up to a popular engine kit that could be attached to a bicycle to aid the rider when pedaling. The 50 cc motorcycle became an instant hit, making Honda a leader in economical transportation and becoming one of Japan's most successful export products. The Cub, which has sold more than 60 million units to date, is used in Japan in a wide range of industries, including delivery of mail and home-delivered ramen noodles. When I first got here I really wanted to buy one, although my high school-age students were shocked by this, since (in Japan) the stereotype of these small motorcycles is that only ojisan (middle-aged men) ride them, although there are enthusiasts who manage to tour the country on their little Cubs. Although sold in the U.S. and Europe, the Super Cub really caught on in Asia, especially in countries like Indonesia and Vietnam and where they're used by millions -- I'll never forget going to Bangkok and seeing a family of five, including father, mother, two toddlers and a baby, perched on one of these tiny 50 cc bikes. Considering that the Honda Super Cub gets an amazing 340 mpg (146 kpl), it seems to me that this is the perfect solution to the current gasoline crisis. All we have to do is encourage everyone to start commuting on these cheap, economical motorcycles, perhaps after reworking our cities a little to be friendlier to slower-moving traffic. Who's with me?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Things Foreigners Do that Surprise Japanese

As an American living in Japan, I know how surprised Japanese can get when foreigners internalize the society around them too much. Here at J-List, the Japanese staff have gotten used to me doing things like bowing while speaking Japanese on the phone to someone or pulling out a kotowaza (Japanese proverb) to make a point. According to an interesting online poll, some other things gaijin do that surprise Japanese include speaking using dialects like Osaka-ben, singing enka songs at karaoke, giving dates in the Japanese calendar system (e.g. Showa 43 instead of 1968), drinking fruit-flavored milk with a hand on one hip after a bath (sounds odd, but I do it most every week), and sitting seiza, or in proper Japanese kneeling position. Another thing that surprises Japanese people is when foreigners are polite, or when they line up properly in crowds -- it seems sad to me that this kind of behavior be the exception and not the rule. When Japanese go drinking with a foreigner, they always seem to expect him to order a Budweiser, since that's what all foreigners drink, right? But I'm much more likely to ask for atsukan, or hot sake, which always seems to surprise Japanese around me. The holy grail of a foreigner living in Japan is when a Japanese person temporarily forgets how to write a difficult kanji and you casually jot it down for them. That's only happened a few times to me, but it was glorious, let me tell you.

Japan, Suicide and...Fortune Tellers?

The terrible rise in suicides in Japan (more than 33,000 last year) has everyone talking about what can be done about the problem. While U.S.-style medical services that provide counseling for people in mental distress are not completely absent from Japan -- I remember being fascinated after learning that my old Japanese teacher had been training for a license to work a suicide hotline -- the fact is that these kinds of services seem to have much less reach in Japanese society compared with the U.S. Even if psychological counseling were widely available here, my feeling is that it wouldn't be used that much. Perhaps as a result of living in a country with half the population of the U.S. crammed into the area of Nebraska, the Japanese are extremely protective of their privacy, and many people in need of counseling might be unwilling to open up and talk about their problems with strangers, instead choosing to gaman, or stoically endure their problems in silence. The Japanese also have an extreme mistrust of drugs, and many of the most common medicines in use in the U.S. aren't even available here. In an odd way, the role of psychological counselors is filled in Japan by -- no laughing, now -- fortune tellers, people who provide advice and guidance after reading palms, tarot cards, and so on. Whether it's a website accessed from a cell phone that gives advice on what emotional challenges a person may face tomorrow or the weekly TV appearances of famed author (and former Iron Chef judge) Kazuko Hosoki, when Japanese need some advice, more likely than not they'll get it in the form of fortune telling.


Japan has started a new initiative to fight fat using the buzzword metabo, short for metabolic syndrome, a polite way of describing the tendency to gain weight as people get older. Under newly passed rules, everyone between the ages of 40 and 74 must get a check-up that measures their waist, and if the circumference is over 85 cm (33.5 inches) for men or 90 cm (35.5 inches) for women, the person will be assigned to a nutritionist who will give recommendations on diet and exercise. They're also making some vague noises about financial penalties for companies that don't reduce employee paunch, although I've lived in Japan long enough to know tatemae (an untruth made for appearance's sake) from honne (the way things really are) when I see it. Compared to most of the rest of the world, the Japanese are far from overweight, and I've known 24-year-old Japanese women who had to do their clothes shopping at Gap Kids when in the U.S. to find clothes that would fit them. But as Western-style foods like the Mega Mac become more popular here, there's widespread fear that Japanese waistlines might follow the U.S. in coming years. I talk a lot about how the Japanese like to think of themselves as a homogenous people coming from the same genetic stock (there's another good example of tatemae by the way), but I didn't think they believed it so fervently that the government would try to apply one set of health metrics to the entire population. Still, battling the dreaded metabo monster is certainly not a bad thing, and I believe the new focus on health in middle-age will bring families closer together as wives and children show more concern for Dad.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Japan and Auto Mechanics

For some reason, living in Japan robs a person of the ability to open the hood of their car. When I lived in the U.S., I was quite comfortable giving my car a tune-up, changing oil and spark plugs, and even replacing the odd head gasket, but since coming to Japan I find I haven't touched a car's engine in fifteen years. My wife is indicative of most Japanese on the subject of auto maintenance -- she once said to me, "I opened my hood once, but I didn't know which one was the engine." This is partially due to excellent service here, with uniformed gas station employees who will cheerfully check your oil and air when you buy a tank of gas, but another reason is sha-ken, a government-mandated automobile maintenance check-up you have to get every two years. The sha-ken check-up is expensive, costing $800 or more, although this amount includes various taxes and a required form of auto insurance, but the upside is that cars are safer and almost never break down. The sha-ken check-ups have a somewhat cynical purpose too: when the next one rolls around, it's common for people to buy a new car instead rather than pay the check-up fee for the old car, which no doubt contributes millions to car manufacturers' bottom lines as people replace their cars at a faster pace than they otherwise would.

Bad Japanese "Dajare" Puns and Arnold Schwarzenegger

It's still drizzling in Japan, as rainy season continues dumping an extra helping of precipitation on the Japanese islands. This morning while leaving the house I grabbed for an umbrella so I could make the 2-minute trek to J-List World Headquarters without getting wet. The umbrella turned out to be my wife's favorite Louis Vuitton, and when she took me to task for using it, the inner reaches of my brain came up with a retort: "But honey, mi casa es su casa!" This was a play on the word kasa (casa) meaning both "house" in Spanish and "umbrella" in Japanese. For some reason, I've gotten very good at thinking of ingeniously bad puns in Japanese, called dajare (dah-jah-REH), and when we go for a drive on the weekends I'm known to torment my kids with joke after bad joke. Some of these linguistic puns come naturally in the course of learning Japanese, of course, like the word ikura which means both salmon roe as well as "how much is it?" making for the obvious gag ikura ikura? ("How much is this salmon roe?"), or how the word for "like" (suki) is pronounced similar to "ski," which causes every student of the language to suddenly ask each other sukii ga suki? ("Do you like to ski?"). At least I'm not the only one with an odd sense of humor in Japanese. Currently California Governator Shuwa-chan is appearing in TV commercials promoting tourism in his state. The goofy slogan he recites combines the word nandemo ari meaning "it's all here" with California, with the result being Nandemo Arifornia. It's quite silly.
See the TV ads here (the lower one is better since it's Schwa-chan speaking Japanese instead of a stupid voice over. Or do your part for California tourism by printing out this PDF poster!

The New Tokyo Tower: Tokyo Sky Tree

There's a new tree set to start growing in Tokyo, all the way up to the sky. It's called Tokyo Sky Tree, a giant new 610 meter (2003 ft) tall broadcasting tower that, if completed as planned, would be the tallest structure in Japan. The tower will replace Tokyo Tower, a scale replica of the Eiffel Tower built in 1958, as the primary means of beaming television to the 35 million residents of the Greater Tokyo Area. The name was chosen by voters who picked it over such choices as Tokyo Edo Tower, Mirai (Future) Tree, and Rising East Tower. Like many people, I personally liked the originally proposed name of New Tokyo Tower -- very sensible and Hobbit-like -- but it was unavailable due to trademark issues. In the end, Tokyo Sky Tree does have a kind of pleasingly weird appeal not unlike Tokyo Big Sight, the sprawling convention center where the Comic Market doujinshi convention is held twice a year. One thing you learn early on when traveling around Japan is, the Japanese are fascinated with towers, and there seems to be a large tower in every major city, from the historical Marine Tower in Yokohama to the unique beauty of Kobe Port Tower and many more. There are even "tower otaku" in Japan, people who obsess about visiting every tower they can and collecting the ticket stubs from past years. I'm sure they'll enjoy making the pilgrimage to Tokyo Sky Tree when construction is completed in 2011.