Friday, August 01, 2008

Yubikiri Genman, or the Pinky Promise

Do you know the Japanese Pinky Promise? It's a similar to the "Make a promise/Hope to die/Stick a needle in your eye" song I learned while growing up. Hook your pinky with someone else's and chant the song, which goes, "Pinky Promise, if you lie, I will make you swallow 1000 needles." (If you want it in Japanese, it's Yubikiri genman, uso tsuitara hari senbon nomasu.) You then say "Yubi kitta!" (I break the pinky connection!) as you pull your fingers apart, and you've made the most excellent promise you can make in Japan, at least if you're in elementary school. The Pinky Promise shows up quite a lot in anime, often to show a promise made between characters while they were younger, although the origin of the custom is somewhat less innocent. Supposedly, the Pinky Promise began back in the Edo Period as a gesture of devotion that prostitutes would make with their favorite customers. The "cutting" of the pinky signified the women severing her own finger as a sign of eternal affection for her partner, essentially saying that she loves him enough to commit shinju, or ritual lovers' suicide with him. Kind of adds a new dimension to watching your favorite cute anime series, doesn't it?

The Japanese Study Japanese, Too

I wrote recently about how Japanese ESL students were sometimes surprised that Americans have a subject in school called English, and wondered what on Earth we could possibly be studying there, since we obviously all know the language automatically just by being born. For the record, the Japanese study "Japanese" in school, too, although the subject is called kokugo, (国語) literally "national language." In this class, Japanese children start the task of learning to read and write their language properly, jumping right in with the first 80 or so kanji characters in first grade and completing the 1006 joyo or "common use" characters by the end of the sixth grade. In addition to Chinese characters, of course, Japanese read a lot, and develop their cultural identity in part through such classics of Japanese literature as "Run, Melos!" by Osamu Dazai (the story of a man in ancient Greece who has just three days to attend his sister's wedding then run back in time to save his friend), or the poem by Kenji Miyazawa "Not losing to the rain/Not losing to the wind" that's about as famous as "And miles to go before I sleep" in the U.S. Just as I had to read hard-to-understand works like Beowulf and Chaucer, the Japanese are required to slough through classics like the Tale of Genji, the story of a fictional Japanese Emperor in the Heian Period that has more than 400 characters in its dramatis personae. The Japanese know that their educational system stresses rote memorization too much, for example tying the date of the Kamakura Shoganate (1192) to the phrase "let's build a good country" (ii kuni o tsukurou) rather than understanding the event critically, and increasingly there's been a trend towards having students write more essays and do class presentations to show that they really understand the material in question.

Hope this image below isn't offensive. It's one of the examples good old Debito Arudo, the defender of gaijin's rights, lists as something that foreigners should be upset about, despite the fact that it's, well, quite an accurate portrayal of what we foreigners look like when we walk abound like fools, unable to communicate. I guess we should all be as sensitive as possible...)

Summer Trends in Japan 2008

You never know what the next "boom" of the summer will be in Japan. One year it might be a trend towards girls making their own jewelry, the next they'll be wearing sneakers with ridiculous 10-inch high soles. This year fashionable clothing maker Uniquo, often thought of as the "Gap" of Japan, has scored big with a line of tank tops for women that feature bra cups built into them, allowing women to feel completely free as they go around town this summer. Other fashion trends you see this year are extra-colorful skirts and tops known as "Brazil-kei" which represent Japanese copying the stylish Brazilian-Japanese population living here, and "gladiator sandals," which go all the way up the leg like something the ancient Romans might have worn (they really look quite silly). Remember that J-List offers monthly subscriptions to some awfully cool fashion magazines, if you want to keep up with what's going on in the fashion world in Japan.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

SDCC Pictures 2008

Here are some pics from the San Diego Comicon I had in my camera. Enjoy!

But first, some images of San Diego. We have basically the best weather in the world, generally a balmy 70 degrees while the rest of the country is -20 in the winter. It's nice when we're not burning down with wildfires anyway.
This is our historic roller coaste, which is a lot of fun to ride.
I am often surprised by things I see in my home country, like Deep Fried Twinkes or this. I know America is all about "freedom" and all, but still... Shouldn't there at least be some kind of tax on stuff we really shouldn't be eating as a people?
Setting up for the con now. People regularly come and ask us to sell them our little Japanese flags, and we always decline politely.
Some of the nice things we were selling. Smart customers know that we often have stuff at the cons that we've sold out of on the site, and come to check if the item they missed buying before happens to be in stock. This is because we ship the items over in February so items can subsequently sell out in Japan but still be available in the U.S.
It's so funny to see the ultra-pretentious bars in the Gaslamp District beggar themselves to the geek crowd during con, happy to seat Stormtroopers and Klingons in their normally too-hip spaces. Comicon is totally the final victory of the nerds of the world over all else.
We got a bunny girl at our table. She did leekspin for us!
On Saturday night, I had to go to a Midnight Madness at Toys R Us to get that really nice Millennium Falcon. I thought, ha, how many people can there be in line? There were hundreds, many of whom were dressed in costume. Here's a rebel soldier with a remote control "mouse droid."
The best Boba Fett I've ever seen, too. He friggin' had his laser blaster with a computer read-out displaying Imperial letters.
Almost there... Almost there...
It's away! At around 2 am I got inside and got my Falcon(s). I would be tempted at the AT-TE if I'd been a kid, but my lack of space to store these things is already chronic.
Back at the show. The Han Solo across the row from us kept taunting me all convention long. If this were just a little cheaper...
Vocaloid cosplayers. They were being interviewed by a camera crew that just did not know what they were talking about, so I had to let them know what the whole Vocaloid/Leek Spin thing was all about.
This looks nice. I am a huge fan of this book by Stephen King, the best he's ever written.
Dude dressed up as a Myspace page. Funny, but when you're causing a massive traffic jam in the most crowded room anyone there had ever been in, it's not cool.
Show's over, time to leave.
So, while we're waiting for the forklifts to bring us out, I happen to be standing right there when one of them drops a big glass case full of stuff. It shattered quite musically.
Funny ad. I had to LOL.
Okay, back to Japan for me. You know, theose ziplock baggies they give you put stuff in at the airport checkpoint are awfully nice? I helped myself to a few, they don't have cool baggies like this in Japan.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Banzai, $1 Coins!

Because I only visit the U.S. once or twice a year, I'm always noticing things I might not otherwise. It's a big surprise to me whenever they change the U.S. money, for example redesigning the bills to add anti-counterfeiting features. This time I started receiving those new $1 coins, which feature different presidents printed on them and which have a nice gold color that makes you want to go out and buy a pirate's chest. Although most Americans no doubt like having the $1 unit in paper form, the fact is that governments spend millions to print these bills only to have them wear out in a few years, and it makes sense for the U.S. to follow Europe, Canada and Japan in retiring its lower-denomonation bills in favor of coins. Japan gave up its 100 and 500 yen paper notes long ago, with the main result being that if you have a pocketful of change you can probably buy half a tank of gas, and once you get used to the new money, it's not a nuisance at all. So I say, bring on the $1 (and eventually, $5) coins!

Types of Anime Characters

As a long-time anime fan, it's been interesting to see how the characters in anime and dating-sim games change and grow. Over the past decade or so there's been a huge increase in the genre known as moé (mo-EH), which is written with the kanji character for "sprout" and which could be translated as "the woozy, happy feeling you get when contemplating your favorite female anime character." It also seems that every character can be categorized neatly into one archetype or another, no matter how original the character might seem. Some of the most common types of anime/game characters include meganekko (meh-gan-NEH-ko), or Girl With Glasses, the often related dojikko (doh-JI-ko), or Clumsy-in-a-Cute-Way Girl, and osana-najimi (oh-sa-na na-ji-mee), the Childhood Friend that comes to wake you up every morning and who is secretly in love with you. One of the most common recent genres of anime characters is tsundere (TSOON-deh-reh), which comes from tsun tsun (angry) and dere dere (soft and tender) and which describes characters that give everyone the cold shoulder yet are actually very vulnerable inside (like Haruhi or Shana). There's just no end to these cute character categories. Some others include Rich Girl who is the Daughter of a Wealthy Zaibatsu Family; Girl Who Talks in the Third Person; Girl Who Works at her Family's Shinto Shrine as a Shrine Maiden, and a recent trend, Girl Who Is So Jealous She'd Kill Her Boyfriend Rather Than Let Him Go With Someone Else (known as yandere). Which anime character type is your favorite?
(I'm fond of the Class Representative myself -- they're so organized, so concerned about everyone else, I just love them.)

Taking Charge in America

Every summer, we arrange to have our kids spend some time in the U.S. to help them learn English and generally get some "fun time" in, since America is a very fun place to them, with Disneyland and Girl Scout Camp and other enjoyable things to do. Making the plans is always a challenge, since their summer vacation is only around five weeks long, compared to three months in the U.S. My daughter arrived in San Diego a few days before I left for Japan, and in no time she had been transformed into a giggling American girl, watching Hannah Montana and SpongeBob Squarepants. Before I left, I took her aside and reminded her of something we'd discussed before: that America is a country where you have to take charge of things for yourself. In Japan, it's pretty much a given that parents will pamper their children, putting breakfast in front of them without even being asked, or noticing when they're hungry and making a snack, but you have to take more responsibility for yourself in the States. When my son was six or seven he went to a day camp in San Diego, and when it came time to eat lunch he didn't know where his had been put. Instead of speaking up and asking for help, he quietly waited for someone to notice his distress, but no one did, and he went hungry all afternoon. It was a valuable lesson for us about about being assertive and taking responsibility for one's self, like Americans do -- or at least that's the way things loook from the viewpoint of Japan.

Strangeness Back in Japan

Well, I'm back in Japan, having journeyed halfway around the world for the nth time. Even while still at the airport, I was subjected to little culture shocks at being back here, like a cleaning lady patiently tidying the men's bathroom while men did their business a few feet away, or that bizarre statue of an "American" hot dog covering himself in ketchup and mustard, located in the arrival lobby of Terminal 1. When traveling from Japan to the U.S., I get a day "free" thanks to the International Date Line, but coming back, I had to surrender it, so that both Monday and Tuesday were completely used up traveling. Well, it's nice to be back, and I hope to be over my jet lag soon!

American Hot Dot at Narita?

The Famous Narita Hot Dog Guy

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Perceiving English

Back when I was teaching English, I found it interesting to observe how my students perceived my own native language. As rule, Japanese ESL students tend to treat English as an exact science, with absolute "right" or "wrong" answers, and whenever I'd give a vague reply about a certain word being correct in some situations but not in others they seemed disappointed, like I'd divided by zero or something. Many of my students were amazed that Americans have a subject called "English" in our schools, and they seem to imagine that we all automatically know every aspect of the language just by being born in an English-speaking country, so why would we ever need to study it? Everyone makes occasional mistakes with spelling or grammar, but if you're an English teacher in Japan, you'd better watch yourself, since students aren't equipped to comprehend the idea that their sensei might not know everything about English like the back of their hand. I had one student who told me she was able to understand English perfectly once she mastered the compound verbs which are quite common in English, like take on, take off, take over, take in; the rest, she told me, was just mastering vocabulary.

Monday, July 28, 2008

What is a Daruma?

One of the coolest images of Japan, to me, are the Daruma, the unique red, roundish dolls that are quite visible in Japan around this time of year. (The word is also written Dharma, for all you Lost fans out there.) A Daruma is a representation of Bodhidharma, a historical figure from India who founded Zen Buddhism and what would become Kung Fu, and who attained his unique shape by fasting and meditating for so long that his arms and legs disappeared -- although I just know that if I were to ask my Japanese wife about this she'd throw up her hands and tell me she has no idea what I'm talking about, since Japanese frequently don't know anything about. Like Japan's Lucky Cat, which beckons good fortune (especially in business or money) into your home, a Daruma is an object that promises to bring you good luck. The doll originally comes with no eyes drawn in, and when you make a wish for the New Year, you blacken one of the eyes with ink. If your wish comes true during the year, you color the other eye, and a Daruma displayed in a home or business with both eyes colored in is a statement of having attained success. While the Daruma is ostensibly a Buddhist icon, it's become associated with Shinto rites such as New Year's Day, and has kind of "jumped" from one Japanese tradition to the other. Every city in Japan stakes out a meibutsu or "famous thing," some object or food that it is famous for, and Takasaki, our neighboring city, just happens to be famous for these beautiful Daruma Dolls. Their official train station bento lunch is Daruma Bento, too, which is well-known throughout Japan.


The Japan Communist Party

One of the more unexpected aspects of living in Japan as an American is the presence of political posters for candidates in the Japan Communist Party. I'm pretty sure most people don't think of the words "Japanese" and "Communist" together very often, but the surprising fact is that the JCP is Japan's second largest minority party, with 400,000 members. Because the Parliamentary system in Japan makes it possible for small political parties to win some representation, there are currently 16 national Diet members who are affiliated with the JCP, something that wouldn't be possible in the U.S. with our two-party system. The Japan Communist Party isn't pushing for the kind of Soviet-era ideas Americans usually associate with Communism -- the Japanese are far too conservative politically for that -- but they do oppose the special military relationship Japan has with the U.S., as well as any cooperation by Japan's military with foreign wars, even in a support capacity, as going against Japan's Constitution. Supposedly a 1929 novel called Kanikousen (Crab-Canning Ship), which portrays the hard life of workers on a ship at sea, is experiencing a boom among younger readers, which is causing conjecture that larger numbers of young people will consider joining the JCP. On the other hand, this could just be the summer's short-lived "My Boom," as something that's popular with an individual for a short time is called.

Comicon Finished

Well, the party's over, and the San Diego Comicon is finished for another year. We had a huge amount of fun, meeting and greeting about 125,000 fans, handing out our trademark Japanese pocket tissue and shaking many hands. If you stopped by to say hi to us, thanks! I'm now on my way back to Japan, which will be a welcome thing after a month of busy conventions. So, like, I'm flying to Japan while you're all reading this. Cool.