Friday, July 25, 2008

Here at the Con

We're deep in it at the San Diego Comicon ('scuze me, Comic-Con International, whatever) in our booth (#129), meeting and greeting thousands of fans and customers who are dropping by to say hello and pick up some great Japanese T-shirts, manga, anime figures and that delightful Black Black caffeine gum. If you're going to be at the show, by all means come by and say hello, and get the great free stuff we're giving out with any purchase. If you won't be able to attend, you can still celebrate with free shipping (or half price for international) on all PC dating-sim games, this weekend only!
By the way, if you've ever seen the movie Demolition Man, the "space age" city where the Taco Bell was located was filmed here at the convention center, since it fit so well with the futuristic motif.

Old and New Brands in Japan and America

It's always interesting to compare the differences between Japan and the U.S. 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. 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 -- Kompeito, or Peko-chan Milk 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. The red-hot Japanese beer industry is an example of this: even in the small-town liquor store that my wife's parents operate, I constantly see new twists on Japanese beer, like beer formulated for ladies, or beer with dietary fiber added, or beer that tries to recreate the beers brewed in the Meiji era. 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 a new flavor of Pretz or a new blend of green tea on store shelves, it's also good to have a core of old favorites that never change.

All About Osaka

Osaka is Japan's second largest city, with 17 million people living in the greater metropolitan Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe area. The city is a sprawling concrete jungle, with tall buildings, deep subways, and lots of bustling people. In general, Osaka seems to be the New York of Japan, while Tokyo is more like Los Angeles, with a much shorter history and a culture that can feel more bland and standardized at times. Osaka is a funny place, and it's almost a given that successful comedians will speak Osaka-ben (Osaka dialect), which is much more entertaining to listen to than standard Japanese, in a somewhat Eddie Murphy/Jerry Seinfeld kind of way. Like Tokyo, Osaka is so big it has to be governed like a prefecture, with 24 districts (ku) that function like individual cities. Some areas foreigners might like to visit include the electronics region named Den Den Town and a nightlife/drinking district called Doutonburi, where you can see Japan's most famous neon sign, the Glico Man. Osaka has always been a commercial city where business comes first, and a popular greeting among people above a certain age is moukarimakka? (moh-kah-ree-MAH-KAH?), literally meaning, "Are you making a lot of profit lately?" (The standard reply is bochi bochi den-NAH, "Yes, a little.") An interesting tidbit about the city: when using escalators, Tokyo-ites who want to ride up keep to the left, leaving the right side for people in a hurry to walk up, but in Osaka this is reversed. Thus, whenever Tokyo-ites visit Osaka they stand on the wrong side, causing confusion and exposing themselves to embarrassment. Something to keep in mind on your next visit to Osaka.

Large and Small Frustrations of Living in Japan

I like living in Japan, really I do, but there are some frustrations a poor gaijin must endure. Things you have to do without, like a real selection of types of bread or cheese, which are nearly always rather boring. Having low ceilings and cars that remind you of the last time you flew in a cramped airplane, or slippers that only come in Ewok sizes. Or everyday inconveniences, like Japan still lacking 24-hour automatic cash machines or banks that can easily interface with international banking systems, despite Japan's famous image as a high-tech superpower. Another is waiting for things you want to be released, which is never fun. Folks in the States can go see the new Batman movie anytime, but it won't start in Japan for another couple of weeks, and often movies take months to make it to Japanese theaters. Amazingly, it took the Japanese publishers of the Harry Potter books a whole year to translate the final book, which is just now being released in Japanese bookstores, to the great joy of Japanese fans who are lined up to buy Harry Potter and the Secret Treasure of Death (the Japanese title) this weekend.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Livin' la Vida Breakfast Cereal

In my American kitchen right now I've got no less than seven boxes of cereal sitting on top of the fridge. This happens every time I'm home: I can't resist the urge to buy all the breakfast cereals that make me natsukashii (nostalgic) for when I was a kid, eating cereal and toast while watching Land of the Lost on Saturday mornings. The cereal I've got right now are Raisin Bran (I've always Kellogg's was far superior to Post), Cinnamon Life (one of the best spin-off flavors of a cereal ever, in my opinion), both Cocoa Pebbles and Cocoa Puffs, Kix, which I've always had an odd attraction to, Golden Grahams, and the most excellent breakfast cereal known to man, Corn Pops, which they used to call Sugar Corn Pops back in the day. (I bought Pop Tarts too, but they're packed now, ready to go back home.) No matter how long I live in Japan and consider it my home, there's nothing like getting your hands on something familiar that brings back the warmth you knew from another time. Of course I can't possibly eat all of this cereal in the next week, so I'll be leaving most of it behind, but in the meantime I'm living the springtime of my youth with American breakfast cereal culture.

Do they still give free crap in cereal? I can't see anything interesting on the boxes I bought. 

Is Speedo a Japanese Company?

Back when I was learning Japanese, I distinctly remember thinking to myself that the Speedo swimsuit company had to be Japanese. The reason for this was the way all Japanese sounds are based on syllables -- for example, you can have sa, shi, su, se and so but never s by itself -- which plays some tricks with English names when rendered into Japanese. Since all syllables end in vowel sounds (except for n, the only consonant that can come at the end of words), English words get a bit of unwanted vowel at the end, which changes a word like "meet" into something like "meet-oh" and the word "friend" into "friend-oh." The English word "speed" similarly becomes "speed-oh," which is where my confusion came from. The Japanese know that they often have thick accents when speaking English, and sometimes try to snip this final vowel sound in order to sound more natural. Sometimes they clip too much, though. Once a student of mine asked me for a "tish," and it took me several minutes to realize he was trying to get me to give him a tissue.

Big Changes for Japan's Educational System

Big changes are in store for Japan's schools: the end of yutori kyoiku, translatable as "easy-does-it education," when Japan's Ministry of Education tried to reduce the amount of stress students were subjected to by lowering academic goals and ending the half day of school kids had to attend on Saturday. (Yes, poor Japanese kids had to go to school six days a week.) It turns out that reducing the number of hours of instruction has a negative impact on academic performance, though, and Japan is now behind nearly all other Asian nations in math and science scores, which has policy-makers rather freaked out and wanting to try to reverse the trend. Japan can make quick changes to it's national curriculum due to it's tradition of top-down administration which allows a plan to be carried out on a national level as directed by Tokyo (for better or worse). This system is quite different from the U.S., where each state is a soverign entity and school districts have more power to decide things. The problem for us is that this revised education plan takes effect in 2012, the year after both my kids are out of the Japanese school system, so they'll miss out on any benefit there may have been from it. It doesn't matter though: virtually all parents who are concerned about their children's education make supplemental plans, whether it's juku (an evening school that helps kids study or prepare for entrance exams), a focused study program like the Kumon system (which they have all over the world now), or an in-home tutor to help students keep up with their studies.

Note that while I know nothing of Kumon, I can say that it has a great reputation in Japan, and some of the kids in my son's class are incredibly smart due to being "Kumon kids." So if you are interested in bringing some Japanese education ideas to your kids, I recommend you check into it. 

Monday, July 21, 2008

Outage

(Note: we had a bit of an outage which caused the J-List and JBOX.com product images to stop loading for a couple of hours on Sunday. The problem was corrected and all is well with the servers -- very sorry if you were inconvenienced while trying to view the site.)

Imagine that, S3 had an outage at the same time we did. What a coincidence...

Being Green in Japan with a "Green Curtain"

Like most countries, Japan is struggling with the desire to be more "green" in order to reduce pollution and the urge to escape rising energy costs. While embracing concepts like cool biz -- which means allowing politicians and businessmen to dress more casually so they'll be more comfortable with the air conditioning set at a higher temperature -- are one possible answer, the extreme heat and humidity of Japan makes this less than a perfect solution. One answer the Japanese have evolved is called midori no kaaten, or a "Green Curtain" of plants that grows on the outside of buildings, providing cooling shade as well as more oxygen for the air and the general feeling of well-being that comes from having living plants around you. The way it works is this: you take a pre-made wire frame and plant vines that will crawl up the frame until you have a wall of greenery shading your windows from the sun. They're popping up all over Japan this summer, and it sounds like a great idea to me.

All About The Japanese Word "Desu"

If you've listened to spoken Japanese at all you've probably heard the word desu, often pronounced with the last syllable reduced so that it sounds like "dess." Linguistically speaking, this word is known as the copula, because it makes the noun and the verb in a sentence, er, want to have a romantic evening together or something; in more useful terms, it fulfills the role of "to be." It's really simple to use: if you want to say "I am John" just say John desu; if you want to state your nationality, just say America-jin desu or Canada-jin desu or whatever. The subjects of sentences are usually left off if the meaning is clear from the context, but if you wanted to clarify that you're talking about yourself and not, say, Michelangelo, you could say watashi wa John desu (As for me, I'm John). If someone pointed to an apple on a table and asked you what it was, you could say ringo desu, which would also be an appropriate answer if someone asked you who your favorite Beatle was and the answer was Ringo Starr. The desu sentence ending is a formal word, useful for making a good impression on Japanese you might try talking to; every Japanese verb comes in formal and informal versions, and the informal of desu is da, allowing you to say Eigo no sensei da "I'm an English teacher" if you were talking to a person below your station, like a teacher addressing his students or to a child or a dog. (As always, stay formal until you understand the nuances of informal Japanese, lest you offend your in-laws as Luicille Ball did to Ricky's parents all those times.) 

Since the word "death" sounds very close to desu when rendered into katakana (actually it's usually written デッス instead of デス), there is a world of puns that can be made about Japanese sentences ending in death. In Dragonball, there's a reace of Chinese space aliens (if memory services) who speak in kanji, and the kanji for です they use is 死 (death). Er, maybe you had to be there.

If you want to see something really different, here's a bizarre movie someone made on Youtube mixing Sazae-san (the longest running show on Japanese TV, going something like 42 years now) with Death Note and Yu-Gi-Oh. The story is that the smallest kid, Tara-chan, gets a copy of the Death Note and kills his family, and then, oh, nevermind, it's too silly. My kids happen to watch it several times a day, is why I am bothering showing y'all. Note that at no time did I imply this was interesting. 

 

Lawyers in Japan

I mentioned last time that Japan has very few lawyers. It's true -- there's just one lawyer for every 7325 people in Japan, compared with one per 288 individuals in the United States and, for comparison, one for every 1634 in France. For various reasons, likely related to Japan becoming a modern Westernized nation only 130 years ago or so ago, the country has evolved a legal structure that's largely based on common sense, or at least that's how it appears to my unfamiliar gaijin eyes. There's almost no tradition of litigatating civil disputes in Japan, a phenomenon which is assisted by the Japanese tendency to prefer being harmonious rather than confrontational, and I can't think of a single instance where a Japanese person I knew was involved in any kind of lawsuit. Another contributing factor to this might be the fact that lawyers seem to earn only $50 per hour -- I wonder how that would fly in the U.S.? When my wife was here in San Diego, one of the things on our list to do was meet with my lawyer and go over my will and living trust, which covers what should happen to the house I own in the event of my demise. American ideas of "Death planning" are totally alien in Japan, since when a man dies, his possessions naturally should go to his wife and kids with no questions asked, and it's actually quite taboo to bring the subject up, as I've discovered to my cost. Because these concepts are so different from Japan, I thought my wife was going to be confused during our meeting with the lawyer, but fortunately she'd seen enough episodes of Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives to grasp the issues right away.

This image is from a show that put four lawyers on a game show (well, a variety show) and various legal issues would be put to the four who would give their opinions. One example I remember was, a woman bought a mansion (an apartment that's owned) in which the previous owner had committed suicide, so was there a duty for the real estate agent who sold the property to pay damages for failing to make this clear ahead of time. One of the four lawyers on the show, the handsome Hashimoto-bengoshi (kind of the Brad Pitt of the law world in Japan) got so popular that he won the election for Mayor of Osaka. 

Some Pictures of Vegas, San Diego etc.

Here are some pictures I've had sitting in my iPhoto library, if you want them.

A little patch of grass for seeing-eye dogs to use for peeing at the San Diego airport.


Getting ready to fly. My wife did not expect them to say things like "If oxygen should be needed, a mask will drop down. Please insert 25 cents for the first three minutes" and was totally surprised. I should have warned her about Southwest first.


We had fun at Vegas. Just stayed at Ceaser's Palace since it's fun to be central to the Strip when in the city. Plus we'd never stayed there.


About the funnest thing to do is...nothing. We spent many hours lolling (not LOLing) by the poolsite.


The passing of George Carlin let me know that it was time to get out to see all the commedians that I respected before too much time passed, so I made sure to catch Penn & Teller this time around. It was a fabulous show, and I recommend everyone hit it. They've come a long way since season 5 of Babylon 5, haven't they? By the way, you get to shake their hands and get autographs after the show, which makes it totally


As a husband to a Japanese woman, I have to recommend Coach compared to Gucci, Louis Vuitton and all the other brands. This is because it's like $100 for something nice, rather than $600, which is really something I can get behind. In Shikoku there's a prefecture called Kochi, which sounds like Coach, and I had to make my dajare (bad Japanese pun) jokes about all these items being made there.


As I am wont to do once a year or so, I took my Miata out to the desert for some power driving.


I have one of the most recognizable cars in San Diego, I'm pretty sure. If you ever see me, say hi, although it will most likely be my mother driving since I'm not in country most of the time.


The open road and a Studio Ghibli watch.


One of the key destinations out here is Dudley's Bakery, a really good bakery. Also, the city of Julian, of course, which has great apple pies when it isn't under threat of burning down every other year.


Last night I even found time to go see the Batman movie. It was good!