Friday, July 11, 2008

Dentists in Japan

Ask any gaijin living in Japan about dentists, and you'll be sure to get an earful. While Japanese dentists are good at fixing teeth, they're famous for making you come back dozens of times to finish your dental work, instead of getting it out of the way in a few visits. Once I had some work done on three teeth that took an incredible 18 months. I believe Japan's dentists take so long to work on teeth because of the way insurance is structured -- they're only allowed to charge a certain amount to the system each day, so they spread it out as much as they can. Like men whose job it is to stand by the road and wave a flashlight to let you know there's road construction going on and NHK employees who knock on millions of doors to collect the $20 monthly fee from households in person, Japanese dentists are an unfortunate symbol of Japan's lack of efficiency in some areas.

This is the best reason to go to dentists: hot, hot oral assistants who clean your teeth for you. I just know there's a major Japanese fetish for having your teeth cleaned by a beautiful woman. I'd go every week if they'd let me. 

International Day of the iPhone: Japan

Well, the International Day of the iPhone is here, when Apple's new 3G iPhone launches around the world. In Japan, the line outside Softbank's flagship store in Omotesando, Tokyo reached 1500 people and over a kilometer in length, as Japanese fans lined up to get their hands on the device for the first time. Masayoshi Son, the enigmatic president of Softbank and the mind behind the success of Google-trouncing Yahoo Japan, was beaming as he watched the lines of iPhone buyers, most of whom were switching from competing cellphone companies au/KDDI and NTT Docomo. Being a maverick has helped make the UC Berkeley-educated Son, a third-generation Japanese of Korean descent, the richest man in Japan, and his ability to "think different" probably helped him win the contract for the iPhone from Steve Jobs. While I'm still not sure if the iPhone will bowl over Japanese keitai users, who are extremely hidebound and love their flip-fones with the fancy styling and easy-to-type (for them) numeric keypads, I do love the coming havoc the iPhone will wreak in the Japanese cellphone marketplace as users realize they don't have to give cellular providers power to dictate everything about their phone, from what music formats they can listen to to what applications they can run -- they can just stick anything in iTunes and sync it over. Today I updated my (first-gen) iPhone to the updated 2.0 firmware and downloaded the app I've always wanted, a light saber sound simulator (iTunes link). Any phone platform that can bring that kind of awesomeness to its users will certainly find a niche in Japan.

Humor in America, The U.K., Japan

Humor is a very cultural thing, and it's fun to analyze the things people from different countries consider amusing -- jokes about the lack of education or hygiene among people in a certain region, visual or slapstick forms of humor, orifice-related jokes and so on. Often, we can't comprehend the things that people in one culture find funny -- Canadian stand-up comedians telling jokes about Nova Scotians go way over my head, for example. Then again, there are times when the cultural difference can make something all that much more hilarious, which I believe is why Monty Python and the Holy Grail is such a cult favorite in the U.S. -- the gap between the two countries magnifies all the jokes, and our unfamiliarity with British understatement ("There are some who call me...Tim?") make it a ridiculously funny film. Humor in Japan often seems to be situationally-based, putting a character in an impossibly bizarre position and drawing laughter from his embarrassment, for example. One important category of humor in Japan comes from manzai, two-person stand-up comedy that involves a dumb comedian (boke) who makes erroneous observations and his sharp-tongued partner (tsukkomi), who berates him at every turn. The interplay of R2-D2 and C-3P0 in the Star Wars films is largely a reflection of this comic tradition, of course filtered through the films of Akira Kurosawa. The old adage that if you have to explain it, it isn't funny holds up pretty well in my experience, and back when I was a teacher I tried using American humor as teaching tool, bringing in Far Side comics or funny song lyrics for my students to discuss. I remember once trying to explain the concepts of irony, sarcasm and cynicism, all three of which are represented by the exact same word in Japanese (hiniku). It was, ahem, not my most inspired of lessons, and I think my students were more confused when I was finished.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Thoughts on Learning While Drunk

Studying a foreign language is interesting because you learn a lot about how your own brain works in the process. I remember back in Psychology 101 at SDSU, being told that when you learn something while in a certain state, it's easier to recall the information later while you're in the same state. The example the teacher gave us was, if you're dumb enough to study for a test while drunk (it was college after all), you'd do better on the test if you took it while in the same state of inebriation. While I've not tested this, I have noticed that memory seems to be tied to language in interesting ways. During my Japanese literature phase, when I was going to read all the classic works of writers like Soseki Natsume in the original Japanese, I read several interesting Japanese literary novels, including Kokoro, a story of a love triangle between in Meiji-era Kamakura. After reading it in Japanese, I found that I had difficulty remembering the plot when I talked about it in English, but discussing it in Japanese was actually easier.

Green Tea Can Save America

In addition to lots of anime-related panels, video rooms and other interesting events, anime conventions are great because you can wander the dealer's room and find some cool things to buy, like, well, J-List stuff. While there are always plenty of companies selling anime, manga and similar products, I like to check out what non-anime booths there are at a given show, hawking things like swords or vampire contact lenses or steampunk art. At Anime Expo I happened across an interesting booth by Japanese bottled tea company Ito En, giving out samples of that most Japanese of beverages, green tea, and carrying their marketing message of Oi, ocha! ("Hey! Tea!") to Americans. Bottled tea beverages are extremely popular in Japan, with twice the volume sold compared to carbonated soft drinks (6 million vs. 3 million kiloliters, if you're curious). Since all Asian-style teas are consumed without sugar of any kind, they're extremely healthy, and it seems clear to me that the #1 beverage of choice among Japanese being naturally free of sugar (unlike, say, Coca-Cola, or virtually everything sold in any store in America, as I learned today when the store I went in didn't stock even non-sweetened iced tea) is probably the single most important reason why Japanese are among the thinnest nations on Earth, which is certainly something to think about. (As an aside, today I was eating some tuna salad from a supermarket here in the States and was surprised to find there was sugar in it -- ack.) Incidentally, J-List offers various kinds of good Japanese tea for you to sample and enjoy, including a beverage I can't recommend enough, mugi-cha, the refreshing Japanese barley tea that's so cold and good in the summer. It comes in handy cold-water tea bags so you can always keep some in the fridge.

"Arubaito" Culture in Japan

There are three kinds of employees in Japan: full time, part time, and arubaito (ah-roo-BAI-toh). The last type, the name for which comes from the german word for "work" (arbeit), refers to contract-less employees who are paid by the hour and work irregular or semi-temporary schedules, as differentiated from full company employees, who have benefits like twice-annual bonuses and vacation time, and semi-official part-timers, who also have some formal benefits. One of the biggest trends in post-bubble Japanese society is the tendency of younger workers to shun traditional full-time employment, instead being content to work informal jobs staffing video rental stores and gas stations, tutoring at evening cram schools, and so on. According to a new government report, an amazing 35% of the workforce now occupies these "non-regular" employment positions, exchanging freedom to change jobs at will and less on-the-job stress for lower job security. Why so many would choose to work as "freeters" (as these part-time and temporary workers are called) puzzles older Japanese, who of course benefited greatly from the stable economic growth of the postwar period. The reasons 'baito is so popular are many, but one big one is that many Japanese have come to value their own leisure time over work. This is a good thing of course, although I personally consider the industriousness of the Japanese people as a whole to be no less than a National Treasure for the country, and something that I hope will continue into the future.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

My Anime Expo 2008

Pay no attention to the rivet that happens to be where our mascot's nipple would be, that was not intentional.
Driving to LA
Convention Center
Setting up the booth
As usual, we have some interesting products. Did you know these Trading Torsos are squeezable?
I love this figure. It's 1/4 scale!!
This is Char Aznable, but I believe he's really cosplaying Tanaka from Otaku no Video, cosplaying as Char, making it quite a deep joke.
Miku Hatsune didn't have a leek so we gave her one.
A satisfied customer of our high school uniform line.
There were about a Brazillion of Asuka's there. This one was hawt.
She put the shirt on and then grabbed her boyfriend's butt, just like on the shirt. It was pretty cool to see.
These anime fans were so tired.
Um, yeah. Buy the used panties of anime characters. It was a really deep joke, but a little off-color.
Living outside of the U.S. makes stuff like this seem *so* stupid. I had to laugh at actually seeing one of these signs.
Our bishoujo game panel was full. I was happy.
LA being LA, there is a lot of Korean stuff. I found some great "fast food" Korean BBQ.
The hotel was quite good. It was, among other things, the Buck Rogers hotel showing futuristic New Chicago.
This is Shokotan, the star of the convention this year. She came by our booth and bought a bunch of kanji T-shirts, since she just loves Americans' take on anime. It was cool talking with her, since she didn't expect to find anyone who could speak Japanese selling stuff.
Closing out the con. I like to show this stuff since most people never get to see it.
There are always little piles of trash after these things. It's kind of lonely to see.
That's all for this year, Anime Expo. As the Japanese might say, see you next!

Monday, July 07, 2008

On Denny's and Seven-Eleven

If you ever want to appreciate your local Denny's, I advise you to go live in Japan for a few years. It's not that Denny's Japan is all that bad -- it's actually one of my top picks for late-night famires (family restaurant) coffee and dining -- but something about it just doesn't satisfy the American in me like the ones in the U.S. Denny's Japan is owned by the company that also owns Seven-Eleven, the top chain of convenience stores in Japan, and for some reason the company thought it would be a great idea to remind everyone of this fact by sticking big Seven-Eleven signs on all Denny's, showing the parent company's new name, 7&i Holdings. After all, nothing makes you hunger for good restaurant dining like a convenience store logo, and nothing builds customer loyalty like branding yourself as a holding company. During Anime Expo, I was quite happy to be able to enjoy breakfast in the nearby Denny's, since I associate a Grand Slam Breakfast with the restaurant chain far more than the menu items they offer in Japan, which include lots of traditional Japanese foods like fried pork cutlet and miso soup.

Japan Can Be an Expensive Place

You've been in Japan too long when you pay over $70 for a Captain Santa T-shirt and realize a few days later how much you really spent. It's true: Japan can be an incredibly expensive place when it wants to be. Virtually everything, from construction materials to gasoline (currently up to the equivalent of $6 a gallon now, although the average Japanese doesn't drive 75 miles round trip to run some errands, which you can find yourself doing in California), is pricier than in other parts of the world, and food costs consume a quarter of the average household budget. One problem is that the ways goods are sold in Japan is still too structured, with products coming into the hands of consumers through established routes and multiple levels of distribution, for example the multi-tiered book distribution system that J-List has to deal with when ordering artbooks or manga. But there's something about living in Japan that compels a person to want to own things he wouldn't otherwise bother with, like the above-mentioned T-shirt I bought in 1992 featuring Captain Santa, a line of high-end clothing featuring images of Santa at the beach. It was the best T-shirt I've ever owned in my life, but at $70, I probably should have had my head examined. From toilet seats that wash your butt to the 20+ varieties of massage chairs they sell here, there sure are a lot of ways to spend your money in Japan.

The Internet and Changes

Sometimes I think that no one is happier with the changes that have been brought on by the arrival of the Internet than me. When I went to Japan back in 1991, I had no inkling of the transformation that was about to sweep over the world, making it a lot less of a hardship to be a gaijin living in a far-off place like rural Japan. Back then it was still the era when people paid something called "long distance" to "call" people who lived far away, which incurred extra fees, and I remember spending $4 or so per minute to call my family when I'd get homesick. It didn't take long before something called the Internet soon put that odd custom in its place, and before I knew it I was able to order the things I needed from companies like Amazon, and of course, offer similar services to people not lucky enough to live in Japan through J-List. One of the best things about the way the Internet has grown is the ability for me to work just about anywhere, doing things like writing this update as easily from the U.S. or Europe as from Japan. A long as there's a nice, fast Internet connection, that is. I have a friend from Italy who likes being in Japan because he can access his server that's 20 km from his Italian office more quickly than home in Italy, where his local connection is much slower. What will the future hold for the Internet? I'm optimistic that we'll all have wireless T1 Internet nodes embedded in our skulls within a few years, and then things should start to get really interesting.