Saturday, September 13, 2008
Friday, September 12, 2008
I write often about how Japanese consider themselves to be a decade or so "behind" the U.S. and Europe, and almost take it for granted that their country is less advanced than the West. For example, I've heard people here remark that no one from Japan could have created a company like YouTube, capable of serving videos to every point on the globe, because no one here could think on such a nakedly large scale. Although it's all too easy to judge Japan from my American point of view, there are some core areas that could be improved, starting with thinking about the web. Yahoo Japan's video site would like to be #1 here, but it not only requires Windows 2000/XP/Vista to work, but you have to be using Internet Explorer, which is a real bummer for Linux, Mac and all Firefox users. Japanese web companies don't seem terribly interested in the outside world, either: Mixi.jp, the leading Facebook-like site in Japan, requires an email address with a Japanese ending (yahoo.co.jp as opposed to yahoo.com) to sign up. Banks can be frustrating, too. Back in my single days, I went hitchhiking up to Hokkaido, being sure to bring my bank card so I could get money from the "cash corner" (ATM) when I needed it. Unfortunately, banks and their ATMs were closed for the Golden Week holidays back then, so I wasn't able to get any cash out all week. (Banks have gotten better, but are still frustrating -- it still costs $6 to send $50 to someone's bank account, as there are no personal checks in Japan.) In the past, many of the most innovative ideas have flowed from Japan, like the Sony Walkman or the idea of putting a camera in a cell phone, but I don't think something like Skype could ever have been invented here.
The Japanese like tests, and there are a mind-boggling number of them offered to people of all ages, from the most popular English test (the Step Test, called Eiken here) to tests for penmanship and kanji writing ability, knowledge of world historical sites, the ability to memorize train schedules and even use of a kendama. Japan's culture of bettering yourself through study and competitive testing was imported from China, where the idea of awarding government jobs based on academic ability rather than, say, giving them to the sons of current officials, emanated from the teachings of Confucius. When I first arrived in Japan, I wanted a way to make myself study Japanese harder, and I found the perfect goal: the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), held every December. The test is set up in four levels, with level 4 being the easiest (hiragana, katakana and a limited number of kanji) and level 1 being required for entrance into a Japanese university, which worked out great because it's not hard to raise yourself up one level with each year of study. The deadline for applying for the test this year is coming up on Sept. 20, so if you'd like to give the test a try, see this site for more information. Remember that J-List genuinely loves Japan and wants to promote the study of the language, and we've got tons of Japanese study books in stock, including JLPT-specific study aids.
In other words, the idea is to use these:
and get one of these:
Happy Wedding! To commemorate the 25th anniversary of Fist of the North Star, the popular manga and anime set in a post-Apocalyptic future in which everyone looks strangely like extras from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, the publishers are holding an actual wedding ceremony for the two main characters, Kenshiro and the woman he spent years battling for, Yuria. On Saturday, 777 lucky fans who won invitations to the event will dress up in their best formal suits to attend the special wedding, which is being put on by the famous "charisma wedding planner" Akemi Ariga. The event will be similar to the fake "funeral" for Kenshiro's brother, the warlord Raoh, and should be widely attended by the media. You can always tell someone who's on his way back from a wedding in Japan, because he's carrying a large bag of gifts he received from the new couple containing things like katsuobushi (dried bonito fish), sekihan (red-colored rice with beans) and manju cakes. Tomorrow there will be 777 Fist of the North Star fans carrying some serious otaku cred home with them on the train. Although they're fictional characters, we certainly wish Ken and Yuria lots of happiness. You are already married!
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Every visitor to Japan develops, I think, a special relationship with Kyoto, the beautiful city that was capital of Japan for most of the country's history. Founded in 794 as Heian-Kyo, it was made in imitation of the great Chinese cities of the era, sporting a Manhattan-style grid pattern with wide, straight roads that are actually named, quite convenient as streets are generally not named in Japan. Of course, everyone loves the beautiful old temples, and whenever I'm in the city I've got a mental list of must-see sites that are among my favorites, from the bamboo forest at Arashiyama to Nijo Castle with its anti-ninja squeaking floors to Kiyomizu-dera, nearly destroyed in Godzilla vs. Mothra. History can be found at every corner, for example on the Gojo Bridge, the scene of a famous sword battle between the 7-foot tall warrior monk Benkei and the charismatic Yoshitsune more than 1000 years ago. When you go to Kyoto, you suddenly become linked with every other foreigner who's ever visited the cty. Even Albert Einstein, who spent several months lecturing in Japan, loved the city. As fall approaches, we'll be under attack from TV commercials reminding us of how beautiful the city is this time of year, with the slogan, "I've got an idea! Let's go to Kyoto!"
Here's the Kiyomizu-Dera commercial for Kyoto. Warning: it will give you Kyoto-lust!
And the commercial advertising my favoritest place of all, Sanjusangendo (the Hall of 33 Bays).
Although anime has become a part of our world culture, watched by fans from all over the globe, the word anime has some interesting history to it. From the early years of the industry, the most common term for animation in Japan was doga, meaning "moving pictures," but when the groundbreaking Tetsuwan Atom (Atom Boy) aired in 1957, it was marketed as "TV manga," starting the early trend of referring to animation with the same word that's used for comic books, manga. The first known example of the word anime being used as an abbreviation for "animation" was in 1965, in an industry magazine for independent film directors, and the word started to spread out to fans from this point. By the time the popular World Masterpiece Anime Theatre series began in 1975, bringing classic works of children's literature like Heidi, Girl of the Alps and A Dog of Flanders to viewers, the word anime was universally used to refer to the genre. One of the biggest events for anime fandom as a whole was Tokuma Shoten's launching of popular anime magazine Animage in 1978, which went on to define many of the concepts of the genre that we take for granted now, bringing all fans together under the same big tent. Although the word anime is often used in the west to mean the opposite of traditional Western animation, Japanese will readily refer to Disney films using the term.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Monday, September 08, 2008
If you love "corn potage," then get to Japan as fast as you can, since people here just can't get enough of creamed corn soup. Most every famires (family restaurant) sports a Drink Bar where you can help yourself to as many glasses of iced coffee or melon soda as you'd like for 200 yen or so, and nearby, there's usually a Soup Bar with a big pot of delicious creamed corn soup -- mmm. As an American, when I think of soup I think of the Campbell's classics like chicken noodle, tomato, and vegetable beef, but these are as alien here in Japan as Green Tea Butterscotch and Rose Flavored Gum are in most parts of the world. Other types of soup the Japanese like include creamed pumpkin or carrot soups, healthy wakame (seaweed) or miso soup, or if at an Italian restaurant, perhaps some minestrone. When you get sick in the U.S., most people think of eating chicken soup, but in Japan the most common remedies are drinking a tea with ginger in it or swallowing down a raw egg in sake -- yum.(They even have it canned.)
I remember back in the 1980s, when Japan's educational system was held up as a success story for other nations to follow. While there certainly are some good elements the country's approach to education -- like the idea of using competition to get students to become goal-oriented and apply themselves in ways I could never have dreamed of when I was that age -- not every aspect of schools here would be appreciated in other countries. The primary goal of education in Japan seems to be to help create happy members of society through inclusion in groups, and there are several mechanisms for promoting this appreciation of your own place as a member of the larger group, for example the complex system of sports and other character-building clubs that students are compelled to join in Junior High School. Whereas American Junior High and High School kids will each have random schedules, Japanese classes are fixed, with all 40 students of class 3-A staying in the same classroom for every hour of every day, as different teachers come and go depending on what the next subject is. One side effect of this is that all classes in Elementary and Junior High learn the exact same material, no matter what their individual level might be. My daughter was taking some lessons with a private tutor in the U.S. over the summer, and I was discussing the possibility that she might be borderline dyslexic with her teacher, since I am myself. The tutor asked me, "Well, if that's the case, they must have some kind of special class for her in Japan, right?" The answer is no -- unless a child is so different they're not able to go to their normal school, everyone will be treated exactly the same no matter what, the better for the harmony of the group.
There's a sad statistic that's on the rise in Japan these days: divorce. The combination of the country's rapidly aging society, high stress levels and a new law that enables a woman to claim up to half of her husband's company pension is causing the number of older couples getting a "vintage year divorce" to rise. When I was an English teacher, I taught a wide range of students, including a fair number of housewives, and I remember being surprised by the venom some of the women were capable of spitting when discussing their husbands. I didn't understand at the time that at least some of this husband-bashing was part of a Japanese social custom you might call "out-humbling each other," as women try to show that they have the most worthless, lazy husband in the room. (Japanese mothers and grandmothers will do the same thing when discussing their own children with others, having competitions to see whose kids were the most baka, and I've had to expressly forbid this kind of talk in my own home.) The divorce rate in Japan is still comparatively low -- currently around 2.2 per 1000 people per year, compared with 4 in the U.S. and 2.6 in the U.K. -- but finding someone who is batsu-ichi (lit. "one strike out") is a lot more common than it has been in the past. Coupled with the trend of women either marrying much later or not at all, it Japan has some tough issues to face as the 21st century progresses.
They look so happy as they stamp that divorce document.