Friday, November 28, 2008

iPhone [hearts] Emoji

One of the things I like about the iPhone 3G I use in Japan is now it updates itself with new software that usually adds new features for free, something my old cell phone certainly didn't do. Version 2.2 of the iPhone software was recently released, and one Japan-centric feature it offers is emoji, or "picture-characters," apparently so important to Japanese consumers that Softbank had Apple add the feature specially for them. With the update, Softbank users can call up an optional keyboard that features several dozen cute pictures which can be inserted into emails, with everything from an ikari mark (the mark anime characters get on their heads when they're mad) to images of food, buildings and apologetic boyfriends. Some of the symbols are downright puzzling (an eggplant? a rocket? smiling poop?), but I guess the idea is to give enough choice so that users can be as whimsical as they like in their emails. It's certainly a lot more expressive than using boring old ASCII to express one's self, like the word Orz which looks like a man on his hands and knees apologizine. I wonder if the new emoji feature will bring in a lot of new users in Japan.

Oh, and unfortunately this is only for users in Japan, and only when they send mail using their Softbank account, which no one uses. Happily there is a hack out there for Jailbroken phones.


Everyone knows that rice is the staple food of the Japanese, and it really is -- we eat it 2-3 times a day, and we're not nearly as traditional as some families. The "other" staple food in Japan would have to be soybeans, which are the source of a great variety of Japanese foods. Miso soup, a hot soup made from fermented miso paste, is an extremely healthy dish that's enjoyed with every traditional Japanese breakfast, and served with other meals. Tofu is another popular food, used in many Japanese and Chinese recipes, or good served chilled on a hot afternoon with soy sauce poured over it. Natto is the famous fermented soybeans that are popular in much of the country, although less so in the Kansai/Osaka area, to say nothing of my mouth. My kids eat it all the time, and when they want to tease me they come up to me and breathe Natto breath on me -- ugh. Japan couldn't get through a day without soy sauce, of course, the single most common condiment in Japanese kitchens, even more than salt and pepper. Finally, soybeans play an important cultural role each February on Setsubun, the traditional end of the year according to the old lunar calendar, when you throw them at imaginary devils to chase away evil and bring happiness into the home. (If you're looking for some good miso soup, we've got several varieties in stock, and miso soup bowls to go with then.)

The History of the Japanese Word Processor

I saw that Toshiba recently won a special award for its JW-10 Word Processor, a breakthrough product that allowed the Japanese language to join the modern age of computing when it debuted in 1978. The idea for a Japanese word processor came six years earlier, when Toshiba engineer Kenichi Mori talked with newspaper editors who complained that their writers took much longer to write articles than their counterparts in the U.S., and he realized that a computer-based workflow was needed in Japan. Since Japanese has thousands of kanji characters, creating a way for users to easily select the kanji they wanted to enter was needed, and they came up with the modern system in which the user enters hiragana characters then hits a button to cycle through possible characters for that word, with software that helps guess the correct character so there aren't a lot of embarrassing errors in the document. The JW-10 cost $63,000 and weighed 220 kg, but it proved that there was no fundamental reason why Japanese users couldn't embrace this new technology along with the rest of the world. This fundamental kanji input system is everywhere now, and any time a person enters Japanese on a Mac or PC or using a keitai (cell phone), they're using the fundamental algorithms developed by the Toshiba engineers. Unfortunately, creating the first word processor in Japanese had the unintended consequence of making just about every adult-aged Japanese person terrible at writing kanji, thanks to the computer interface that looks up the characters for you. In this age of convenient electronic devices, the average Junior High School student can probably write a lot more kanji than most adults.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Today is Good Bath Day

I have the most interesting car: when I start it in the morning, it greets me with ohayo gozaimasu (good morning) and tells me the date, followed by an interesting bit of "what day is today?" trivia. For example, August 15 is Instant Ramen Day, May 9 is Ice Cream Day, and November 22nd is Happy Married Couples Day, designed to help promote happy married couples (and hopefully get that non-dog birth rate up a little). Today is ii furo no hi or "good bath day," a day when people like me who love Japanese hot springs and open-air baths can feel good about getting very clean while bathing. While I do love going up to the mountains to experience a real volcanic hot springs whenever I can, I don't really have to go far to take a nice hot onsen bath, as there are three large public bath/hot springs establishments within 5 km of J-List, and one under construction that should be opening soon. Every weekend when we're trying to decide what we want to do, my kids know what my suggestion will be: heading to some hot springs to get really, really clean.

Dog Birthrate Update

Japan is experiencing a big increase in its birthrate...of dogs, that is. While Japan's rate of human births continues to sag, with just 7.87 babies born per 1000 persons, compared with 14.4, 12.4, 12.0 in the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, respectively, there are plenty of dogs to go round -- about 12 million of them according to an annual study of a pet food industry group that was recently released. Dogs are changing Japan in subtle ways, something I noticed when I saw that a nearby home center had installed a dog run in its parking lot, essentially a fenced off grassy space where dogs who have come shopping with their owners can run, jump and play with other dogs. If you're a cat person (we'd qualify, as we have six in our house), you'll have plenty of company in Japan, too, as there are another 12.5 million cats living in Japanese homes. All told, there are dogs and cats in Japan than humans under the age of 15 here -- Japan is truly a paradise for pets.

A New Start for J-List

First of all, we've done a nice redesign of the J-List and websites, improving the look of the graphics of the site and making some changes to make things easier to find. We've also given our official mascot character Megumi-chan a refresh, just in time for the holidays, and we think she looks really cute in her "Santa-wear" (as a Santa suit is called in Japan). We've worked hard on the site refresh and we hope you like it! As always, feedback on the new site design is more than welcome! (Note that we are still tweaking the site.)

Pitty the Poor Gaijin

There are many important milestones that a foreigner trying to master Japanese will face. Ordering in a restaurant for the first time, for example, or communicating to the pizza delivery guy how to get to your apartment, not easy since streets are generally not named in Japan. Trying to get the hang of keigo (polite Japanese) is challenging since English speakers aren't used to the concept of using one form of language to raise up (exhault) the person you're talking with while using another type to lower (humble) yourself, and I remember crashing and burning many times due to getting the two confused. For many students of nihongo, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test is the primary goal they set for themselves, and whether you're trying the easiest level (level 4) to test your grasp of elementary written and spoken Japanese or are going all-out for the hardest level (level 1), required for foreign students to enter a Japanese university, having a goal and meeting it is a glorious thing. Some might consider passing level 1 of the JLPT to be the "ultimate" test of a person's Japanese, but I found an even higher goal gaijin can shoot for if they're so inclined: talking with the Emperor. I was watching a press conference with Japanese Emperor Akihito, and a foreign journalist stood up to ask him a question in Japanese. Unfortunately, the reporter garbled the question just enough that the meaning wasn't clear to the Emperor, who had to ask the poor man to repeat his question several times, while the cameras and everyone in the room stared on. Having been in many embarrassing situations myself, I felt terrible for the poor reporter. (Incidentally, J-List stocks dozens of excellent study aids for students learning Japanese -- browse our huge selection of items, now!)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Early Thanksgiving

On Sunday we had ourselves an early (and partially Costco-enabled) Thanksgiving, since Thursday is rather a difficult day to take off in the bustle of Japan, and since it was actually a local holiday called Labor Thanksgiving Day here, a day for giving thanks to people who work hard all year. It's not always easy to translate special cultural events to other countries, but we did our best to have a traditional holiday meal anyway, enjoying chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy, although there was sushi, too. It was up to me to explain the background of Thanksgiving to the Japanese friends we'd invited over, and I did my best to impart the history of the holiday to everyone, also explaining little details like, no, no one actually likes cranberry sauce, but we have to have it out because it's traditional. I've been careful to indoctrinate my kids in all the little things American kids must know, so we sat around watching A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving on DVD, which is always fun.

The Christmas season is fast approaching, and J-List is loaded with many outstanding products that the people on your list would love to receive. From our lineup of Japanese toys to our bento boxes and accessories to our kanji T-shirts and study supplies and more, J-List is the place to come when you want to find something that will really be appreciated by the person on your list. Remember, too, that there is no sales tax of any kind when you buy from J-List, and that we've got some great specials going on to save you money. Help J-List make this Christmas a little more special for the Japan-focused people on your list this year!

A Little Safer For Vice Ministers of Health and Welfare

The biggest news in Japan these days has been the murder of a former Vice Minister of Health and Welfare and his wife, an event which shocked the usually peaceful country with its violence. Last Monday, a man disguised as a delivery company employee entered the home of Takehiko Yamaguchi (66) and his wife Michiko (61) and stabbed both to death with a "survival" type knife, and the next day, the individual attacked the wife of another former head of the ministry, although she fortunately survived. Since the attacks were both directed at former heads of the Welfare Ministry's Pension Bureau, there was widespread speculation that the crime might have been perpetrated by someone angered over the loss of millions of pension records in the 1980s, which effectively robbed a huge swath of workers of some of the pension benefits they'd receive later in life. The real motive for the slayings may have been a bit more mundane, however. According to an email sent to the Tokyo Broadcast System, which had been reporting on the incidents, the killer committed the murders because his dog was put to sleep at the "health care center" (aka the dog pound), also operated by the Welfare Ministry. "This was revenge for having 'my family' [dog] killed at the health care center 34 years ago," the man said in his email, which also complained that Japanese municipal authorities are putting 500,000 stray dogs and cats to sleep each year. When I saw that police had arrested one Takeshi Koizumi (46) and recovered the murder weapons from his car, I knew instinctively that his occupation would be listed as mushoku, or unemployed, since the Japanese news always announces what job a certain suspect does (even if it's no job), so that viewers can categorize him in their minds properly. With this dangerous killer behind bars, hopefully the world will be a little bit safer for Vice Ministers of Health and Welfare for a while.

My Trip to America, er, Costco

Over the weekend we had a bit of an adventure: we made a trip to a Japanese Costco, the membership club that offers the American warehouse shopping experience to consumers in Japan. Costco has been operating stores here since 1999, but until recently all the locations were on the other side of Tokyo from where we're located, and I would rather fly all the way to California to buy something rather than drive through the chaos that is Japan's capital, if I have any choice in the matter. When we walked through the doors we were instantly transported to a world of shopping convenience where we could find all sorts of things not usually available in Japan, from American hot dogs to breakfast cereals to fabric softeners and more. We were quite pleased with how much effort the company had put into bringing the standard Costco experience to Japan, and we knew where everything was right away because the layout was exactly the same as the stores we shopped at in San Diego. (My existing Costco card even worked.) While Japanese consumers have gotten more comfortable with buying bulk over the past two decades or so, Costco still has some work to do to adapt its business model to the country, and many of the products they were offering in the store seemed confusing to me, from the bake-at-home pizza that was too big for tiny Japanese ovens to a full selection of children's books in English, which no one was even picking at, or American pickles, which I am happy to buy but which most Japanese dislike. Paradigm shifts in buying habits always present opportunities to certain companies, and I could see that a lot of American brands were getting a toe-hold with Japanese shoppers who had never seen Downy or Tide or Duracell batteries in the past. It'd be interesting to see if these companies can increase their market share in Japan, using Costco as a springboard. There was a downside to my little shopping trip, however: the feeling of being back in the States was so complete that I had real trouble staying on the correct side of the road while driving home. You should have heard my wife scream.

I really can't explain why Japanese people would be taking picture of this