Friday, November 07, 2008

Star Wars Pachinko

Pachinko is the national pastime of Japanese men, and most anytime you drive by one of the many pachinko parlors around my house, you'll see a parking lot nearly filled with cars. The point of the game is to take a bucket of silver balls that you buy from the proprietors and shoot them into a pinball-like machine, hopefully holding the controller at just the right angle that the balls will fall into certain holes in the machine, causing more balls to come out. If you are a "pachi-pro" or a person who's really good at playing the game, you'll end up with more balls than you started out with. Since gambling is illegal, you can't redeem the balls for money, but you can exchange them for valuable prizes like cigarettes, which you take to a smaller business located next door to "sell" to get your money -- very silly. Our home prefecture of Gunma is the Detroit of the pachinko world, with several large pachinko makers located here. Right now, pachinko manufacturer Sankyo is advertising a new Star Wars: Attack of Darth Vader pachinko game that looks pretty cool. In the commercial, the Sankyo factory located 1 km from J-List can be seen.

Announcing the J-List Support Center

At J-List, we all work hard to be the very best company we can be, bringing you fun and wacky products like Hello Kitty toilet paper . As the Internet has matured, the wonderful tool that is email has become somewhat less reliable, and sometimes when you send an email to someone it seems to go nowhere. Over the past few months, we've become aware that J-List's email is not as reliable as it should be, and that more than a few customers have asked us questions about their orders and have gotten no reply from us due to these email problems. J-List takes communication very seriously (as customers who have gotten emails from me at 2 am can attest), and it really makes us sad that some customers have been unable to reach us easily. Today we're happy to announce a sweeping replacement for our contact form, the J-List Support Center located at http://help.jlist.com, a secure new contact database that you can use to ask J-List anything about our products, your order, or what the weather is like in Japan this week. You might not even need to ask, though, because the system has a complete Knowledge Base with articles that help you find the information you need yourself, including many articles on potential issues with our PC dating-sim games. All emails will be tracked with tickets, and you can read our replies by logging into the contact system if emails don't reach you for some reason. We sincerely apologize to any customer who ever had a question that didn't get replied to due to email issues, and we think the new support center is going to make it much easier for you to get fast answers from us. Expect more good things from J-List! As always, feedback is welcome.

Coming of Age in Japan?

Japan is currently engaged in some soul-searching about whether or not to lower the legal age of adulthood. Historically the official year for coming-of-age has been 20, and quite a big deal is made of this event every year around January 15 on Seijin-no-hi, or Coming-of-Age Day. On this day, Japanese young people who have turned 20 that year (with "year" being defined as the previous April to the upcoming March) gather in their city wearing fine new suits or beautiful kimonos to hear long, drawling speeches from politicians about life, responsibility, and the importance of contributing to society by working hard. Now a possible amendment to the Japanese Constitution is being considered which would officially lower this age to 18 from the current 20, which is the legal age for voting in Japan, as well as for buying tobacco and alcohol. (The age for driving is 18.) Most young people are opposed to the change, which doesn't surprise me somehow. For some reason, Japan is a place where the younger generation isn't in a hurry to grow up, and it's common for children to live with their parents well into their 20s, or if they're the oldest son or daughter of the family, forever, since they'll be taking care of the parents as they get older. There's something about the Japanese psyche that makes many young people more than happy to "grow up" at a slower pace, whether it's the famous "parasite singles," who live at home forever and never marry or make households of their own, or the more common "freeters," who work part-time jobs without ever deciding on a full-time career. Perhaps its a side-effect of having fewer children born over the past generation, meaning more doting on each child by parents compared to the old days.

Big Dreams, Little Tokyo

One of the many products J-List carries is a fun film called Big Dreams, Little Tokyo, a movie I like a lot, and not just because some J-List kanji T-shirts appear in it. It's the story of Boyd Wilson, an American who's obsessed with learning Japanese and being Japanese, and he goes everywhere dressed as a Japanese businessman, handing out business cards for his language school and translation service. His roommate is Jerome, a Japanese young man born in the U.S. who wants more than anything to become a sumo wrestler, and the two of them have many adventures as they stand on the border between East and West. During the film, there's a scene where the main character is told, "Boyd, you're not Japanese. No matter how many times you bow, you will never be Japanese." This devastates him, and he goes home and rips all the posters of scenic Japan off his wall. I had to laugh at that scene since I've been in that situation before. There's something about working really hard to master a language and trying to memorize every kanji character "just because it's there" -- even archaic ones that Japanese themselves cannot write -- that makes a person liable to overidentify with the object of his fascination. Gaijin in Japan eventually come to see that balance is needed between the two halves, and I'm much more at peace now choosing to be an American in Japan, rather than trying to be Japanese myself.


(I got my wife to go out with me by writing bara, the kanji for "rose," which almost no Japanese can write. Good dating tip!)

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama vs Obama

Well, the election is finally over. As usual, the task of explaining how the Electoral College works to the Japanese staff of J-List is similar to teaching someone the rules of American football -- in other words, very difficult -- although the local Japanese news helps out by going over the basics of the system. As has been widely reported, there's a city in Fukui Prefecture on the Sea of Japan with the name of Obama (written with kanji meaning "small beach"), but the coincidence is even more amazing due to the fact that the word for "city" and the suffix used to refer to individuals in formal situations like news reporting is both shi -- hence, the official name of Obama City is Obama-shi, and the most common way for a newspaper article or news reporter on TV to refer to Mr. Obama would be Barakku Obama-shi. The connection between the place and the man began when the Senator made a visit to Japan in 2006 and happened to encounter a customs inspector from the city who told him of the name match-up, and when Mr. Obama announced his candidacy the city designated themselves his unofficial supporters in Japan. Tomo recently got married to a girl from Fukui, and he reports that she's happy at having an American President with the name of "her" city. In a further coincidence, the city of Obama happens to be where two of the 16 Japanese who were abducted to North Korea and forced to teach Japanese to spies were from. The Japanese aren't too pleased with the recent decision by the U.S. State Department to remove North Korea from its list of official terrorist states, and some here hope that Mr. Obama's having the same name as one of the abduction sites will raise some awareness of this issue in the American government.

Tetsuya Komuro Haters: Can You Celebrate?

One of the most famous stars of the J-POP world is in hot water. Music producer Tetsuya Komuro, creator of most of the top musical acts of the 1990s, was arrested today over contract fraud after he sold the rights to many songs he'd written but didn't actually own. After a successful musical career with his band TM Network in the 80s, he became a music producer, using his eye for talent to discover and promote many of the biggest names of the day, like Amuro Namie, TRF, Ami Suzuki, Ryoko Shinohara, and Hitomi. These artists were collectively known as the Komuro Family, and they set the pace for music in Japan for years, earning TK (as he's called) a spot near the official listing of top earners in the music world. Komuro may have been a brilliant music producer, but his English skills aren't that hot, and he's reponsible for coining some of the goofiest song lyrics of the past 20 years, including GET WILD AND TOUGH, BODY FEELS EXIT, EZ DO DANCE, CRAZY GONNA CRAZY and so on. We sure hope he "get chance and luck" and is able to get out of his present situation soon.

Wendy's in Japan -- woah

It's not every day a gaijin living in rural Japan opens the newspaper to see an ad for Wendy's staring back at him. The American fast food chain will be bringing its square hamburgers and Hobbit-sized versions of those wonderful Frosties to residents of our prefecture this month, opening in a large-scale shopping mall with the somewhat disturbing name of SMARK. It's amazing how many ways companies from overseas are able to bring their products to market in Japan these days, a far cry from the late 80s when politicians insisted that imported skis were not "suitable" for Japanese snow. While some large companies have brought big changes to their industries directly, for example Toys R Us taking advantage of the lack of centralized competitor in the toy business to take the top spot for themselves, others brands bring their products into Japan by partnering with local companies, which is why you see a little Suntory logo on cans of Pepsi here. Another breakthrough has been the rise of American-style "Premium Outlet Centers," where companies like Nike and L.L. Bean and Timberland can reach out directly to Japanese consumers without bothering with the infamous multi-tiered Japanese distribution system. I visited one of these shopping outlets the other day, and literally had to think for a few seconds to recall whether I was in the U.S. or Japan, since the layout of the stores was almost exactly the same as in outlet centers I've shopped at in San Diego. (The McDonald's sign written in katakana finally gave it away.) Following recent food trends, Wendy's Japan is going "mega," bringing double and triple hamburgers to hungry Japanese eaters.

Monday, November 03, 2008

More Japanese Idioms for You

Here are some more Japanese idioms, which can be fun for foreigners to pick up and use since no one expects us to know them. If something is too small, like your end-of-year bonus, it's suzume no namida (soo-zoo-meh no NAH-mee-da, 雀の涙), which literally means the tear of a sparrow and is similar to the idea of "a drop in the ocean." To express the concept of flattering or brown-nosing someone, there's the phrase goma-suri (ごますり)which means to grind up sesame seeds -- so if you laugh at a dumb joke your boss makes, you're grinding his sesame seeds for him. If you're hiding something but your secret is discovered, the Japanese would say shippo ga deta which means that your tail has popped out from inside your clothes, bringing up images of a wolf wearing human clothes. And if someone is kao ga hiroi (顔が広い)they literally have a "wide face," which means that everyone knows them and that they have a lot of influence. Of course, many of the things we say in English -- like "two birds with one stone" (isseki nicho 一石二鳥, lit. "one stone, two birds") or "pearls before swine" (buta ni shinju、豚に真珠) -- have been imported into Japanese and are commonly used, too.

The Japanese [heart] France

The English language in general and the U.S. in particular are a great source of inspiration to Japan, and America often represents many high ideals to socially-restricted Japanese young people, including that always-elusive concept of "freedom" they associate with us, despite not really having an idea what the word might actually mean. Still, it's not that rare for Japanese to live and find success in places like New York or Los Angeles or London, and as a result there's a somewhat reduced amount of kakko ii (lit. "good style") associated with the English language. To be really cool, it seems, you have to go to France, which is idolized by many Japanese because it's so different, both culturally and linguistically, from this corner of the world. When popular actress Kumiko Gotoh married F1 driver Jean Alesi and moved to Europe, there was a collective sigh of envy from every female in Japan who wished they, too, could be swept off their feet like that, and the actress has been able to maintain her popularity despite not living in Japan full time. Other stars like actress Miho Nakayama and former newscaster Eriko Nakamura also live in Paris, making them minor legends in the entertainment world here. France is used to add mystique to characters, too, such as the fashion doll Licca-chan (far more popular than Barbie here), who is half Japanese and half French, or the magically challenged Louise Françoise de la Bamue le Blanc de la Vallière from Zero no Tsukaima, whose French-sounding name adds a certain je-ne-sais-quoi to her character. The No. 1 manufacturer of beds in Japan is France Bed, which has built quite a brand making people think their products are made in the land of of cheese and wine, although its bed have a large tag "Made in Japan" on their products if you look closely.

War, Names and Awesome Magical Girls.

I've written before about my wife's uncle, the World War II veteran who loves me since I'm the only one in the family who listens intently to his old war stories -- everyone else has heard them so many times they just tune out when he starts talking. I went to visit him again the other day and I took my son since I want to expose him to that bygone era of history while there's still time to talk with those who took part in it. We didn't know what room he was in, so I called my wife to ask what his name was. (An odd phenomenon of speaking Japanese: since you have so many ways of referring to a person with labels such as ojisan "uncle" or sensei "teacher," it's not uncommon to not be sure of the name of a person you've known for years.) Since he was born in the 1920s, his name sounded odd to my ear -- it was Kumakichi Kurihara -- but I didn't have any problem remembering it, since I knew the kanji the name was written with: "Oh, a lucky bear in a field of chestnuts, got it." (The kanji are kuma "bear" + kichi "good luck" for his given name and kuri "chestnut" + hara "field" for his family name.) We had a nice chat, with my son asking many questions about what it was like during the war, and me trying to keep mental images of Strike Witches (the anime about magical girls fighting in an alternate universe that's similar to World War II) from invading his narrative.