Friday, October 03, 2008
When you think of traditional images from the Edo Period, firemen probably don't immediately spring to mind. And yet for centuries, the brigades of hikeshi, lit. "those who put out fires," have been extremely important in keeping Japan's cities from going up in flames on a regular basis. Although we might think of Japan as being a backward nation during its 250-year period of sakoku ("chained country"), when it was death for any Japanese to leave Japan or for any foreigner to visit, the sprawling metropolis of Edo (now Tokyo) was actually the largest city in the world, with as many as 1.25 million residents at the time of the national census of 1720, compared with 860,000 in London. With so many people living in buildings made of wood, bamboo and paper, fires were a constant danger, and so teams of firemen wearing thick, multi-layered kimonos of cotton and special sandals were organized to keep them under control. Since there were no water pumps back then, the main way they accomplished this was by tearing down houses that weren't burning yet in order to isolate fires to a single part of the city. These heroic men were celebrated with a special genre of the ukiyoe art, which you can see by viewing the 2009 calendar we've posted to the site today.
There's a famous story related to fires in the Edo period, the tale of a girl named Oshichi, who became the most famous arsonist in Japanese history. She was born in the year 1666 in present-day Chiba Prefecture, and was adopted by a family who sold vegetables in Edo. When she was 16, a fire burned through much of the city, and she was forced to evacuate with her adopted family. While fleeing the flames, she met a page from a Buddhist temple named Shonosuke and they fell madly in love with each other. After she returned home, she found herself thinking of the young man endlessly, and her obsession became so great that she decided to start another fire in they city, so that she might be able to see her lover again. She was caught and executed, but her story became a legend in a Guy Fawkes sort of way, and has been used as the basis for traditional Kabuki plays for centuries. Oshichi was the first Hinoeuma (hi-no-EU-ma) or "Fire Horse," the beginning of the superstition that girls born in the Year of the Horse every 60 years will grow up to be headstrong and will cause sadness for their family. The last Hinoeuma year was 1966, and so many women avoided having children that year that it caused a noticeable drop in Japanese population numbers.
A manga version of Oshichi, and her grave, quite a tourist spot today
Wednesday, October 01, 2008
The Japanese, they take their gift-giving seriously, a fact that I was reminded of while in Tokyo yesterday. I was passing through Ueno Station, one of my favorite parts of the city, and I saw an interesting shop selling omiyage (oh-mee-YAH-gay, souvenirs) of Tokyo, with the interesting name of Gift Island. They offered all manner of exotic sweets for sale, from the famous Tokyo Banana (banana-shaped cakes) to Goma Tamago (a traditional manju cake shaped like an egg and made with black sesame seeds, supposedly very healthy) to the fabulous castella, a cake rich in eggs that was introduced by the Dutch in the 16th century. One of my favorite traditional treats is called dora-yaki, which looks to the Western eye to be two pancakes with sweet Japanese beans inside; this is the favorite food of Doraemon the time-traveling robot cat, by the way. Of course, J-List has recently started carrying some interesting gift boxes of souvenir snacks you normally can only buy in places like Akihabara or Asakusa, with packages that are specially designed to be suitable for giving to others as gifts, or you can munch them yourself. Check them out on the site!
It looks like a Twinkie, but it's Tokyo Banana, so it's much cooler ^_^
Do you that rustling noise? It's the sound of millions of Japanese students, mostly in junior high and high school, changing from their summer to their winter uniforms. Today is the day for koromo-gae (koh-roh-moh GA-eh), meaning "seasonal changing of clothes," when Japanese students will switch from their light uniforms for summer to their heavier uniforms for winter, which they all do on the same day, from Kyushu to Hokkaido. (Okinawa, being extra warm, gets to wear their summer uniforms for two months longer than the rest of the country.) Of course, the weather doesn't always get the memo, and at the end of September it got really cold in Japan, forcing my son to go to school shivering in his summer uniform...and of course, now that the uniform change has come, it's gotten really warm again, so he'll be sweating. Like many aspects of Japan there's more to the clothes-changing custom than meets the eye, and it turns out that it dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185), when the Emperor would commemorate the seasons by officially changing his ceremonial kimonos from winter to summer or vice-versa. Of course, J-List sells authentic high school uniforms for guys and girls, including both summer and winter versions of girls' uniforms, which are custom made to your exact size by the famous Matsukameya of Nagoya. If you'd like to own a cool high school uniform of your very own, browse our site now. Yes, there's plenty of time to get your uniform made and shipped to you by Halloween, although it's a good idea to order quickly.
Monday, September 29, 2008
If you want to learn a language as different from English as Japanese is, you'll need a few things. First, you'll need to get past the brain's natural resistance to trying to "read" a language comprised of little snakes wriggling on a page, as Japanese looks to be at first, and the best way to accomplish this is to practice hiragana, katakana and kanji until your brain starts recognizing the characterswithout conscious throught. (It takes less time than you'd think.) You'll need a lot of perseverance, and as wide a range of areas related to the language you can feel passionate about as possible -- this is usually not a problem when it comes to Japan, since there are so many fascinating aspects of the country. Another thing that really helps with foreign languages is what the Japanese call kan, meaning "sense" or "intuition," and if you are kan ga ii (kahn ga EE, having a good sense about things) you'll be able to intuit the meaning someone is trying to communicate even though you might not know the word per se. My son and daughter are both preparing for the Eiken English test in a few weeks, but they're going about studying in different ways. My son, who is very methodical and likes to understand everything about what he's studying, gets hung up on difficult vocabulary, made all the worse by the fact that he's taking a test intended for college-level students yet is only 13. But we're constantly amazed at how often my daughter, a year younger, is able to pull the correct answer out of her head without actually understanding the material she's studying on a conscious level. She's got kan, which helps her sense the meaning most of the time.
I've no idea what this picture is but it rules. Hence I will include it here.
The Japanese are masters of influencing emotions using voice, and I'm often amazed at the eerie beauty of the voices that enter my ear here. If you watch anime in Japanese, of course, you know how talented the Japanese voice actresses are, and their ability to bring to life a character that would otherwise be (literally) two-dimensional and inert is one of the major attractions of the genre. One of the most popular voice actresses in Japan today is Aya Hirano, who provides the voices for Haruhi Suzumiya, Konata from Lucky Star and Misa from Death Note, and she can do the most amazing things with a character. But the strangely compelling beauty of Japanese voices isn't limited to anime: you can find females who are specially trained to speak in a uniquely soft way in various professions, too, such as female bus guides, who entertain passengers on long sightseeing trips; ground hostesses, those airport employees who call out your flight number in the most delightful sing-song tones; and Japan's legendary elevator girls, the uniformed women who stand in the elevator and announce each floor for you (although they've almost completely disappeared). It's hard to describe the quality of these sweet voices, which are made possible by weeks or months of vocal training -- there's something about the way they dip down and back up again at the end of a sentence that casts a spell over me. But speaking in a cute voice isn't just for a few professions with high customer visibility. I'll never forget the time I called NTT, Japan's sprawling telephone and Internet provider, to get help with some computer hardware I was having problems with. The voice on the other end belonged to an extremely kawaii-sounding female NTT employee, and bastard that I am, I actually expected her to take down my information and then transfer me to some male technician who would tell me how to fix my problem. I was quite surprised when the cute voice quickly proceeded to help me debug my router and fix the TCP/IP problem I'd been having, solving it in no time. I had to hang my head in shame for a while after that.