Friday, December 05, 2008

Kanji is, like, radical dude

Part of learning to read and write kanji involves learning about the building blocks (called radicals) that make up the characters. Although they can look like so much goobldygook when you're not used to them, most characters are built with parts of other characters which help guide their meaning. For example, characters for things like language, to read, to translate, and to speak all contain the same left half (called gomben), which is the character for "to say." Kanji characters are often tied to the elements, and there are radicals for characters related to water (found in characters for sea, fish, tide), fire (found in ash, smoke and to burn), or rain (which shows up in characters for cloud, snow, and lightning) -- all quite logical, really. When you study kanji for far too long, as I have, you start to imagine you can see the threads of thought that went into their creation. For example, the kanji for "second" (as a unit of time) has the same right portion as the character for "sand" and I imagine some scholars in ancient China millennia ago working out why it was logical for the two concepts to be linked in this way, because of the way time can be measured with an hourglass.

Announcing The J-List Anime Figure Sale!

J-List is having a very special sale on our most gorgeous prepainted anime figures, and you're invited! Because we're a bit overstocked on some of these gorgeous prepainted figures and flexible action figures we carry, we've lowered the prices on all items, a super chance for you to add to your collection. We've got some of the most popular figure lines on sale, including Figma and Nendoroid, too. Best of all, buy 2 or more figures from the sale and get another 10% off. Since we've gone out of our way to add figures in logical groups (e.g. Haruhi and Lucky Star), it's the perfect reason to buy them together and build a great shrine to your favorite anime.

J-List Anime Figure Sale

The Most Popular Japanese Words of 2008

Every year dictionary publisher U-CAN announces the most popular buzzwords for the past year, slang which appears suddenly and is likely to fade away almost as quickly. One word that was on people's lips in 2008 was arofo, an abbreviation of "around forty" made popular by a television drama by the same name, and the word has come to symbolize the current generation of Japanese women in their forties. This has also been a good year for Japanese comedian Harumi Edo, who makes use of the fact that words in Japanese end in full syllables, e.g. ra-nin-gu instead of "running," and her popular comic routine that turns the final gu! sound into the English good! has won her a place on the list. Some words that were nominated for the award but not chosen include homuresu chugakusei (homeless Junior High School student) based on a book released by a media "talent" who spent some months living in a park as a boy, dokuiri gyoza (poison Chinese dumplings) due to the Chinese food scare, and asa banana (morning banana), reflecting the sudden popularity of a diet that promoted eating a banana for breakfast, which resulted in bananas being completely sold out and impossible to buy in supermarkets throughout the country.

Trust me, this is funnier than it looks at first:

Japanese Food Can Kill You

One of the things I like best about living in Japan is the food. From traditional types of Japanese cuisine like sushi and sashimi to rice bowl-based foods like Oyakodon ("parent-and-child rice bowl," made with chicken and eggs) to local versions of Chinese dishes and all types of bento, eating in Japan is a joy. Japanese food has a reputation for being healthy, and in a lot of cases it is, containing less fat and fewer highly processed ingredients, but the reverse is also true: there are plenty of popular foods here that can kill you. The most famous deadly Japanese food is fugu (pufferfish), which contains a poison that paralyzes your body while you suffocate, but since fugu chefs must undergo years of training and be licensed by the government, deaths from it are quite rare today. A more dangerous food is mochi, or rice cake, essentially a square of extremely dense rice that's been pressed into a solid shape. Cook it over a flame and it will turn soft and chewy -- so chewy in fact that 30% of accidental deaths among the elderly supposedly come from choking on it. A similar food is konjac or Devil's Tongue, a kind of yam eaten throughout Asia that's grated, pressed and boiled until extremely firm, like gelatin made with very little water. Although the low-calorie/high-fiber food is popular with dieters, konjac is so firm that it must carry warning labels on the packaging, and no matter how careful people are, occasionally children or elderly manage to choke on it. All told, a staggering 4000 Japanese choke from overly chewy foods each year in Japan, a very sad statistic.

I love, LOVE this stuff, mochi. Sadly, it's about the most calories you can have in one meal.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Peter the Japanese Writing Teacher

I've been in "teacher mode" a lot these days, spending time helping my daughter write essays in Japanese. She'll be taking the entrance test for a private Junior High soon, and one of the requirements of the test is that she be able to write a good essay on a topic like, "What kind of Junior High School student do you want to be?" or "Name an event in your life that moved you emotionally." Historically, tests in Japan have been all about rote memorization, for example knowing that the city of Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto) was established in 794, or that the angles of a triangle always add up to 180, but as educators see that students lack written communication skills, essays and other kinds of writing have started to become more common. Like Japan's society itself, the essays have a strict framework to them, written on special "essay writing paper" with columns of squares to write characters in. In addition to writing kanji and kana correctly, the essay tests knowledge of how to properly write using the form, including some seemingly arbitrary things like knowing that the title must be indented three squares, and so on.

This is what the special paper, called genko yoshi 原稿用紙, looks like:

Recently spotted on Twitter: "Got my bento toys from J-List last night in the mail. Even cooler than advertised. My husband will never guess what's for Christmas!" That makes us so happy. J-List is a great place to search for really rare and fun items from Japan, whether it's anime toys and figures or bento boxes or unique 2009 Japanese calendars or our trademark Wacky Things from Japan.

Christmas Lights in Japan

Christmas is approaching, and in Japan that means one thing: lots of pretty twinkling lights. Throughout the country there are hundreds of romantic light displays that offer beautiful illumination and imagery for the Christmas season. In Tokyo, you can visit places like Roppongi Hills, Tokyo Tower or Shinjuku's Terrace City to take in these beautiful light displays, which are especially popular with couples, who plan a special evening at one of these "date spots" on Christmas Eve, considered the most romantic night of the year. In Yokohama's famous Yamashita Park you can visit Perry Joriku Hikari no Michi, translatable as the Shining Street of Admiral Perry's Landing, which commemorates the coming of Admiral Perry and his Black Ships with beautiful Christmas lights. This seems like an odd thing to celebrate, but I guss it's no stranger than the robot sister of Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy) being named Uran, meaning "uranium," an unexpected move for the only people who have experienced an atomic bombing first-hand. Just one of the many ways Japan confuses us foreigners.

Japan's 99% Conviction Rate

Last time I talked about the new Japanese "lay jury" system, which aims to have citizen jurors take part in the process of judging and sentencing serious crimes. This is quite an alien concept for Japanese, who have only 120 years of history as a Constitutionally-founded nation and no existing tradition of a trial by a "jury of one's peers." I mentioned that the conviction rate for criminal trials is over 99%, which compares to around 85% of in the U.S., and I received some questions about how this could be so high. First of all, it's considered an extremely serious offense to charge someone with a crime without being sure of his guilt, and it often takes Japanese prosecutors weeks or even months to bring formal charges in crimes while they sift through evidence and make sure they're not making a mistake. For example, it took several months for Aum Shinrikyo cult leader Shoko Asahara to be officially charged and arrested, despite his clear involvement in the 1995 subway nerve gas attacks and murder of a lawyer named Sakamoto and his family. The Japanese legal system is focused on getting suspects to confess their crimes, which is seen as the first step in rehabilitation, and police sometimes try so hard to their man to come clean that they end up with confessions by innocent people -- ack. Another big reason for the high rate of guilty verdicts is that there are a lot fewer resources in Japan for prosecuting crimes, which means that prosecutors must choose their strongest cases and decline to take action in situations where evidence is lacking, which inflates the numbers. Hopefully the various reforms the government is putting into place now, which include increasing the number of lawyers in Japan, will improve things in the future.

Monday, December 01, 2008

J-List Special Black Monday Sale!

J-List is just bursting with great products that would be appreciated by the special people on your shopping list this year, from anime calendars to plush toys to prepainted figures to bento and wonderful Japanese snacks. To celebrate Black Monday, we're doing something special: giving a $25 discount for any purchase of $200 or more. Considering the huge number of outstanding products we've got in stock, it'll be easy to pick $200 worth of great calendars, toys, figures and other items for the people on your list (or yourself). Offer good Monday and Tuesday!

Black Monday Sale Event

8 9 3 = Yakuza

Like most countries, Japan has its unsavory elements, including organized crime. Japan's version of the Italian mafia are the yakuza (YAH-koo-za), a name which literally means "8 9 3" and refers to a losing hand in a traditional Japanese card game. The yakuza have almost four hundred years of history dating from the Edo Period, when the nation was closed off to outside influence and able to grow free of the wars that had plagued previous eras. While yakuza gangsters have been seen as defenders of the weak in popular lore, in reality they're very smart criminals with excellent organizational skills who operate various businesses, from illegal high-interest loans to shady drinking establishments in Tokyo's Kabuki-cho district where simply sitting down can expose you to an exorbitant fees. Yakuza are famous for their incredible full-body tattoos, a popular art form in Japan, and I've certainly seen more than my share of these, despite the "no tattoos allowed" sign. Although yakuza are gangsters, they're usually very polite, and it's considered good form for a well-connected person to have a few yakuza friends, just in case you ever need them. Yakuza are often associated with Japan's famously loud right-wingers who drive around in huge trucks blasting World War II era songs and, occasionally, the theme from the classic anime Space Cruiser Yamato. There's a whole subset of the Japanese language used by these gangsters, and part of the fun of living in Japan as a foreigner is seeing how good I can get at speaking the dialect.

Jury System Coming to Japan -- Alert Ally McBeal!

"Overseas dramas" are as popular as ever here in Japan, and thousands of fans follow American series like Damages or Boston Legal by renting DVDs from shops or watching the episodes that are broadcast on TV, usually late at night on NHK. There are many concepts in these courtroom dramas that must be hard for Japanese viewers to follow, however, due to the differences in the legal systems of Japan and the U.S. One of these differences -- the lack of cases being heard by a jury of average citizens -- will be changing soon, as the Japanese government prepares to roll out its "lay judge" system in 2009. Envelopes have been mailed out to 295,000 citizens informing them that they've been chosen as potential jurors in the new system, meaning that they can be called upon to appear in court to start hearing cases. The new system, in which groups of six jurors and three professional judges will decide the guilt or innocence in serious crimes like murder or arson, has been put in place in part due to Japan's embarrassment at its sky-high rate of convictions of 99%. The idea of whether average Japanese citizens can perform the duties of American-style jurors is a complex one. On the one hand, there is the school of thought that the group-minded Japanese might find themselves going with the opinion of the larger group for social reasons, rather than because they genuinely think the person in question is guilty or innocent. On the other hand, I've known many contrarian Japanese who would likely take an opinion different from everyone else just to show how headstrong they can be, which would cause all kinds of problems. Will the lay judge system work? I'm frankly not sure, but I think it'll be a useful exercise for every Japanese who takes part in it.


The First and Last Shinkansen

An era has come to an end in Japan: the "0-Series" Bullet Train, first launched back in 1964, has made its last run as the venerable series is officially brought out of service. It was during Japan's heady postwar growth period that the government made a proposal to build a high-speed train line to handle the increasing passenger load on the Tokaido Line between Tokyo and Osaka, and slowly things got under way. With the impending Tokyo Olympics only a few years off, the project was kicked into high gear so that the line would be opened in time for foreign visitors to oo and ah over. It was a big success, and the speedy trains helped improve Japan's international image like no other symbol of the postwar period. The 0-Series is considered the Mother of the Bullet Train by rail fans, and all told they've traveled enough miles to circumnavigate the globe 30,000 times -- wow! Tickets on the last 0-series were snapped up in record time by train otaku who wanted to be present on that last journey, and as the train pulled out, hundreds of fans were there with cameras to record the moment. During my years as an ESL teacher I had many students who loved train more than anything, and after school vacations they'd have all kinds of interesting stories for me about taking a long trip to some rural corner of the country to ride their favorite train.