Friday, October 31, 2008

Sweet Japanese Foods

Like many families in Japan, we live with my wife's parents in a niseitai jutaku, or "two household-home," meaning that my wife's parents and my own family are considered two separate households that happen to live in the same house. My parents live downstairs in rooms that are traditionally Japanese, while our house upstairs is more Western, although we've got a nice tatami room with Okinawa-style square mats that I like to sit in while I work on my laptop. The other day I was hungry so I got a bowl and prepared to grab some of whatever my mother-in-law had on the stove for dinner, which turned out to be nikujaga, a simple stew of meat and potatoes that's slightly more interesting than it might otherwise be due to the fact that its name sounds like Mick Jagger. My wife saw me and said, "Watch out. It's probably really sweet since my mother made it." Failing to see how a meat-and-potatoes stew could be "sweet," I took a big spoonful, and darned if it wasn't really sweet. Many Japanese dishes do call for sugar to be added, and many sauces such as teriyaki and the flavoring for sukiyaki are essentially soy sauce mixed with sugar. For this reason, the Japanese don't really have a custom of eating dessert after a meal, since their main dish was sweet enough to satisfy them.

Little Things About Japan

When a foreigner first comes to live in Japan, there are many small things they'll notice. Ceramic roof tiles on every house, which makes them appear to the eye to be beautiful temples until you get used to looking at them. Menus listing "kcal" for food items, since what we call a calorie really is a kilocalorie. People pointing at objects with their middle fingers, which would be rather insulting back home but which means nothing here. More vending machines than you can possibly imagine. Another aspect of Japan that struck me were the men who stood in the road to guide traffic around patches of road construction, which seemed like the most ridiculously easy job in the world, although they take it very seriously. They'd hold up their little orange baton at you then bow their thanks to you when you stopped, and like a fool I'd bow back, hoping no one could see the stupid foreigner.

Wacky Japanese Television

While many Westerners have a bizarre view of Japanese television because of a few variety shows that torment people by making them sit in a bathtub of scalding water or put their hand in a box of snakes, most Japanese TV isn't nearly that strange. There are dramas, like the currently running GiraGira that's based on a popular manga about "host clubs" staffed with good-looking males; talk shows like Waratte ii tomo ("It's Okay to Laugh"), which is in the Guinness Book for 36 years of uninterrupted daily broadcasts; and some imports, like the local version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The internationally famous Takeshi Kitano hosts several shows including Anyone Can Be Picasso, which has a segment where artists compete in an "art battle" for the right to open an exhibition of their work in New York, and Unbelievable! which shows touching and miraculous stories from around the world. Japan's declining academic performance compared with neighboring countries has caused a lot of consternation here, and the TV networks have responded by creating popular educational shows in which "talents" (a catch-all word for comedians, actors and anyone who's interesting to watch on TV) sit in "class" and take tests on various subjects, with lots of witty banter to break up the studying. Another apparently popular category of television are travel shows in which a camera crew will follow some famous people as they journey through rural Japan, stopping at traditional inns and hot springs and sampling local food delicacies along the way. I even saw a version of this concept shot in California, in which a former idol singer drove from San Diego to Solvang, a quaint Danish town complete with a windmill, stopping at various points of interest along the way. Although I don't find driving on Los Angeles freeways to be particularly fun, it was quite interesting to see places I knew being described in detail to Japanese viewers.

This is older than God (from before Takeshi had his accident while riding home on a scooter from Fumie Hosokawa's house where he was having an illicit affair), but it's really hilarious:

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Omedetou Gozaimasu!

Miu, Riko and their new sister, Kokoko. It's a regular Three Sisters' Story.

That's a nice "shutter chance."

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Understanding Japan "Properly"

There are interesting ways to gain an understanding of a society through its language. Two words that speak to Japan's rule-oriented approach to behavior are the words chanto ("properly") and chanto shita ("proper"), which are used to grant a higher status to "the way things should be done." Once, when I went to pick up my daughter from school, I watched the teacher showing the kids a kami-shibai (a story told to kids using sheets of cardboard with pictures on them) about the proper way to brush your teeth, the proper way to greet others, and so on. Of course teaching kids is one thing, but it's interesting to note that the concept of there being "one" correct way to do things comes up in many situations. Almost without fail, those who don't do what's expected of them -- young people who drop out of school and play guitar in front of the train station, couples who live together without getting married, even crazy gaijin like me who quite their English teaching jobs to start companies selling wacky things from Japan to people around the world -- are seen in a negative light by society at large. Some examples of the word chanto in Japanese sentences are, chanto benkyo shite kudasai (Please study properly, as you should) or, kare wa chanto shita sarariiman desu (He is a respectable company employee).

New Image Hiding Feature on

We've been making more improvements around here, always finding ways to make your experience at J-List a better one. One question we've struggled with for some time was what to do about some of the items we sell on the site which feature, say, famous Japanese idols in bikinis. It's a hard question, since we don't want to group idols with wide appeal like Yuko Ogura on the "R" site only just because they're wearing a bikini, and yet some of those bikini shots can get pretty sexy. We think we've come up with a good solution that keeps some steamier PG items on the JBOX site without being a problem for people who surf the site at work. Now, all images of sexy bikini photobooks or calendars will be hidden but the first one, and if you want to see them, just click the "view images" button that's right there. Feedback on the new changes is always welcome!

Pregnant Woman Dies in Tokyo: Update

Japan is in a state of shock over the death of a pregnant mother after she was turned away from seven different hospitals. The woman was near her due date when she suddenly started complaining of a terrible headache and nausea. On the advice of the obstetrician the husband called an ambulance, but it took an hour and a half before a hospital finally agreed to take the patient. The baby was born via Caesarean section and is fine, but the mother unfortunately died several hours later of what was discovered to be a brain hemorrhage. The problem is lack of doctors, especially ones capable of handling an emergency patient about to give birth. As Japan's birthrate falls, more and more hospitals are readjusting their staff to better serve their existing patients, and all too often this means less attention paid to maternity medicine, which of course is a source of worry for any potential mothers. While this sad event happened in Tokyo, the problem is even worse in rural towns -- I once saw a documentary about a woman who had to drive herself two hours to the only maternity hospital in her area for her regular check-ups, and how nervous she was about what would happen if anything went wrong with her pregnancy with her so far from her doctor. It's an especially ironic tragedy coming just as Japan tries to take on its sagging rate of population growth, even creating a new cabinet post for Minister in Charge of the Declining Birth Rate headed by young politician and new mother Yuko Obuchi. Now all the talk shows are buzzing with experts giving their opinions on the problem, with slogans of "Don't let this woman's birth have been in vain."

(We do have some happy birth-related news for you, by the way. An hour ago, J-List's manga and photobook-meister Yasu's wife safely gave birth to their third daughter, as Yasu continues his plan to re-populate Japan single-handedly. The baby's name is Kokoro, and mother and daughter are doing fine.)

All babies look Japanese when they're born, don't they? Note: this isn't Yasu's baby.

All About Shinto

I recently talked about Buddhism and how many of Japan's customs are tied to the religion, sometimes without people being aware of it. For example, the traditional Bon-Odori dance done at Tanabata festivals in August was originally performed to welcome the spirits of the dead who were returning home for a visit, but no one seems aware of that these days. But Buddhism isn't the only religious tradition here -- there's also the original belief system, Shinto. The word means "Way of the Kami" or "Way of the Gods" and it finds spirits (kami) in things like mountains, trees, rivers, and for people who watch too much anime, magical fox gods who transform into pretty girls. You could probably make a strong argument that Totoro, a magical spirit who lives in the forest and which only children can see, comes from this tradition of worshipping nature and is thus a kami, but Japanese people might look at you funny if you did. Another aspect of Shinto is purification, and there are many rites related to making something (land you're about to build a house on, the sumo ring you're about to wrestle in) clean and pure. Some people even pay a Shinto priest to ogamu, or purify, a new car they've just purchased, so they'll have good luck and avoid accidents. Whenever I go in our out of the J-List office my eyes pass over the glass of water and plate of salt that my wife keeps by the door. This, too, is for purification purposes, to keep bad luck out of J-List and protect all of us inside.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Idioms in Japanese

We never think about idioms in our own language, but to non-native speakers, learning the meanings of phrases like "to leave no stone unturned" or "to stick your neck out for someone" is a real challenge. There are idioms in Japanese, too, including a whole sub-category that have to do with parts of the body. The phrase koshi ga hikui (lit. "one's lower back is low, near to the ground") means a person who is very humble and always apologizing, a good thing in the context of Japan, but shiri ga aoi ("one's rear end is blue") means they're too young or lack experience since babies born in Asia have a blue spot on their rear ends until the age of two or so. If someone can't keep a secret they are kuchi ga karui ("their mouth is too light"), but if they are kuchi ga umai ("their mouth is skilled") then they're good at making jokes or getting others to agree with them. The eyes in Japanese are called me (pronounced "meh"), and some idioms that make use of eyes include me ga takai (lit. "your eyes are high"), meaning someone with very high standards, and me ga ten ni natta ("my eyes became little black dots"), meaning, I was so surprised, my face looked like a character out of a manga.

Barber Shops and Baths

I love getting a haircut in Japan. The barber shop I use rents space inside a lobby of a large onsen/public bath, making it possible for me to get my hair cut and then jump right into the bath immediately, washing away all the unwanted hair from my head. The guy who cuts my hair is very interested in English, having been to the U.K. several times, and he always asks me for advice on how he can learn more effectively. My main advice to him is to be "8x" like a CD-ROM drive in a computer -- that is, to attack the problem of learning from as many different sides as possible. In my own case, I augmented my Japanese classes at college by watching anime, reading manga I was interested in, translating songs for friends and writing fan letters to my favorite manga artists. (Some even wrote back, so bowled over were they at receiving a letter from an American fan.) Finding aspects of Japan that you are interested in -- be it J-doramas, offbeat music, martial arts or what have you -- is a great way to make it easier to learn the language. My barber is always full of questions about America, asking me things like what barber shops are like there, or what my first impressions of Japan were, and we have many interesting discussions. Truth be told, I wish more of the Japanese people I met were more curious about the world outside Japan, asking questions like him -- all too often, it seems, I encounter people who don't really want to be inquisitive and learn new things.

Politics Compared: Japan and America

America's election is almost here, and the whole world is watching, including the Japanese, who get regular reports from the campaign trail on the news. It's interesting how politics differs in each country, with people taking sides on different issues in accordance with their own unique national history. Japan's system allows for several political parties, with the major ones being the ruling Liberal Democratic Party; the opposition Democratic Party of Japan; New Komeito, a party with ties to the Sokka Gakkai Buddhist religion, part of the current coalition; and the smaller Japan Communist and Socialist Parties. Perhaps due to this more complex political landscape, the idea of being "conservative" or "liberal" here is a little different from what you might be used to in your country. Conservatives like the ruling LDP are associated with being pro-business, pro-agriculture, since farmers make up so much of the party's base of voters, and pro-construction, as Japan loves to build things. Conservative politics often go hand-in-hand with respect for the Japanese Emperor, and at the extreme end ultra right-wingers embarrass everyone by driving around in loudspeaker trucks blaring war songs from World War II. (On the upside, they sometimes play the Space Battleship Yamato theme song, which is cool.) Things on the other side of the aisle are harder to pin down. "Liberals" in Japan would on the surface be tied to traditional socialist movements, although there's very little discussion of this in modern Japan; instead, the only "socialist" proposals you hear about are attempts to eliminate the 5% consumption tax to help households economically. Teachers in public schools are considered left-leaning and against the Emperor System, and when my wife was in Junior High she had a teacher who took time out from the normal curriculum to teach the students about the war, despite this not being in the approved textbooks. Different issues divide people at different times, for example there was a rousing debate on how to reform Japan's sprawling National Postal System (which also functions as the world's largest single bank in terms of deposits) a few years ago. North Korea's kidnapping of 13 Japanese citizens to serve as language teachers for North Korean spies has also left its mark on politics, and the Japan Socialist Party was never able to recover from being associated with North Korea in the past. Despite the push and pull of party politics in Japan, very little actually changes after an election, due to the layer of professional civil service employees (komuin) who actually do the work of government. The Minister of Education might change when an election is held and a new cabinet formed, but very few of the staff at the Ministry overall would be affected, which brings a kind of eternal stability to the country. Incidentally I've voted in the election via the absentee ballot system already. If you're in the U.S., hope you'll be voting, too!

This is what Japanese elections are like, but louder