Friday, December 26, 2008

Beat Takeshi x Hideki Tojo

On Christmas Eve Japanese television viewers got to see a rare historical drama in which internationally famous director and comedian Takeshi Kitano played Hideki Tojo, the Japanese general and former Prime Minister who is generally seen as the main force behind many of the actions Japan took during World War II, including both in China and Korea as well as Pearl Harbor. The drama, which also contained documentary portions including interviews with some still-living individuals from the era, was called "What Was That War All About Anyway? The Japan-American War and Hideki Tojo" and told the story of the general in the months leading up to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. I was surprised to see such a touchy subject as this taken up in a mainstream media channel since the name of Hideki Tojo and the topic of the war in general is an all but taboo, and only a director of Takeshi's stature could have made the project possible. I certainly hope for more open discussion of some of these events in the future.
Takeshi *totally* looks like Hideki. The resemblance is scary!

Sprawling Tokyo and Standing Soba

Japan's capital city of Tokyo is a sprawling mass of concrete, asphalt and steel that holds 35 million people in its greater metropolitan area (the city itself including three surrounding prefectures), which is slightly less than the population of California. Because there are so many people living in close proximity, things are a little different in Tokyo compared with most other parts of the world. I'd never been in a McDonald's with multiple floors until I came to Japan, but in Tokyo it's quite common to see fast food restaurants with three stories, with the ground floor for the kitchen and two floors for patrons to eat on. Family restaurants are often built with the parking lots occupying the ground level and the restaurant essentially raised up on stilts allowing the cars to fit under the building, while convenience stores with apartments built over them for the owners to live in are common, too. The idea of "personal space" doesn't mean much in Tokyo, whether it's trying to squeeze behind the tiny tables at a coffee shop or traveling on a train so packed that breathing becomes difficult. J-List is located in a fairly small city about 100 km from Tokyo, so we're spared much of the stress of having too many people around us. But even our spacious city is quite different from back home, something I'm reminded of whenever I stop at the train station for a bowl of tachi-kui soba, the "stand-and-eat noodles" that are consumed while standing at a counter, since there's no room for seats in the tiny restaurant.

More on Tokyo

Tokyo is a large and complex place. Many areas of the city are famous for different things, like Akihabara for electronics and anime culture, Shibuya for urban street fashion, Kanda for used books and Shimbashi for old-style salaryman bars and open-air yatai food stalls. One of the more infamous parts of Tokyo is Kabukicho in Shinjuku, a dark area filled with bars, hostess clubs and other businesses of somewhat ill repute, making it the only part of Tokyo where a visitor might feel unsafe while walking. A trip down the main avenue in Kabukicho on a Friday night is quite an experience, with hundreds of yobikomi (guys who try to convince you to come into their bar to drink), including many Nigerians for some reason. The days of the area's status as the city's unofficial red-light district may be numbered, however, with Tokyo's Governor-who-can-say-no Shintaro Ishihara doing his best to clean up the shady region in order to strengthen his bid for the 2016 Olympics. The trend isn't new: ever since 44 patrons of a gambling hall died in a sudden fire in 2001, police have been watching some of the shadier businesses. Last week's closing of the historic Shinjuku Koma Theatre, where enka songs were performed live for half a century, has led to conjecture that a shiny new glass tower will be erected on the spot in the near future, further changing the face of Kabukicho. While cleaning up some crime is probably a good thing, some are concerned about the "Disneyification" of Tokyo's last rough spot.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ai Iijima 1972-2008

Oops, one more post to the blog only. It's being reported that Ai Iijima, the former adult actress who pretty much defined the 1990s for me (um, long story) has died, apparently by suicide. Very sad. After joining the AV world, she had many ups and downs and amazingly landed on her feet, becoming an accomplished author and mainstream geinojin ("talent").

A Very Merry Christmas from J-List

T'was the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except at J-List, where we're still busy efficiently processing the hundreds of orders we're receiving from all corners of the globe. Let us know how we can serve you today, either with our always-fun products from Japan or our new, improved J-List Gift Certificates, which are printable PDFs that can be sent through email for speedy delivery to your lucky recipient, or to you (so you can present the gift certificate to them directly). Japan iTunes cards also make great gifts that can be sent quickly through email, in case you've run out of time this year.

Tokyo Tower Anniversary

Today is the 50th anniversary of one of Japan's most famous sights: Tokyo Tower, which serves as the primary broadcasting hub for the entire Tokyo region. It was back during Japan's period of high economic growth after the end of World War II that the government realized the need for a large, centralized broadcasting point for NHK and the various other private television networks that were emerging, to avoid Tokyo becoming littered with ugly towers. The company that took on the project took its inspiration from the Eiffel Tower in Paris, deciding to recreate the famous structure in a perfect 1:1 scale, although Tokyo Tower had to be designed with earthquakes in mind. Back in 1958, Japan was still underdeveloped economically, and couldn't produce enough steel for the tower's construction, so they purchased hundreds of scrapped tanks left over from the Korean War. Today the 333-meter Tokyo Tower is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city, and thousands ascend to the observation decks every year to look out over the sprawling Kanto Plain. (Supposedly you can see Mt. Fuji on a clear day, but I've never been able to.) The fascination with the tower can be felt in anime, too, especially in the works of CLAMP, who always manage to work Tokyo Tower into each of their works. Sadly, the company that runs Tokyo Tower is in debt up to its eyeballs thanks to an especially bad investment in a golf course in the 1990s. With the potential loss of broadcasting customers who are scheduled to switch to the new Tokyo Sky Tree tower that will be completed in 2011, one wonders how the company will fare going forward.

Lucky Bags from Japan

After Christmas comes Oshogatsu, or New Year's, a very special time in Japan. While January 1st is usually spent relaxing at home, visiting with relatives or taking a trip to a shrine for hatsu-mode (ha-tsoo moh-day), the first prayer for happiness of the new year, it's a big time for shopping, too, with stores having start-of-the-year sales to get customers in the door. One of the more popular customs of the New Year's season is lining up to buy fuku-bukuro, sealed "lucky bags" filled with unknown contents which feature items valued at much more than the price of the bag. These bags are so popular, you can see lines of customers waiting to buy them at department stores, and everyone hopes to get something really cool for the discounted price. This year J-List is bringing this Japanese tradition to our customers, too, with four different "lucky bags" offering different anime toys and figures, traditional and bento items, and more. What mysterious items will your bag hold?

My Buddhist Santa Claus Reconsideration

I've always been a huge fan of Christmas, and when the season approaches you can always see me with a Santa hat on my head and Christmas music playing on my iPod. But my first Christmas in Japan was quite a surprise. When I got here, I didn't expect the Japanese people I would meet to be very religious, so after arriving in my city I was surprised to find myself surrounded by a kind community of Japanese Baptists who ran a friendly church complete with a kindergarten for the local kids. There's no greater thrill for Japanese children than to get presents from a real gaijin dressed up as Santa Claus, and when the church asked me to play "Santa-san" I was all too happy to oblige, ho-ho-ho'ing as I handed out presents and being sure to speak only English, to keep things properly authentic. I've since been asked to play Santa dozens of times, although one of my more memorable performances was at a Buddhist preschool. They had none of the trappings of the holiday like festive decorations of snowmen and reindeer, and in lieu of Christmas carols the kids sang a song about the happy birth of Buddha while holding candles, which was quite an interesting cultural experience. But Santa Claus knows no borders, and the kids were thrilled to receive presents from me. All of us at J-List sincerely wish you and your loved ones a wonderful and warm Christmas holiday this year!

Monday, December 22, 2008

The First Christmas in Japan

Christmas is nearly here, and throughout Japan children are looking forward to getting a present from "Santa-san" while guys plan that big date with their girlfriends on Christmas Eve. December 25th is a unique time in Japan, a special event imported from the outside world with very little in the way of local roots or traditions, making it feel in some ways like an adaption of a Japanese matsuri (festival) more than the most solemn holiday in the West. Did I say holiday? Of course Christmas is just a normal work day in Japan, and there's nothing like sitting in a traffic jam on Christmas Day to give you that "bizarre Japan experience." One of the big cultural differences between Japan and the U.S. is how the roles of Christmas and New Year's Day are reversed: here, Christmas is more often than not a time to have a loud Christmas party with your friends, complete with party hats, exploding firecrackers and maybe a karaoke machine, while New Year's is a solemn, holy day for visiting with family and going to the Shinto Shrine to pray for happiness in the new year. Christmas at my house is a bit of a hybrid affair, with plenty of American trappings like the Charlie Brown Christmas Special combined with Japanese Christmas Cake from the local cake shop. Hmm, maybe we'll go for a Hello Kitty one this year...

The first recorded Christmas in Japan took place in 1552, when missionaries who had accompanied Francis Xavier held mass in a newly constructed church in what is now Yamaguchi Prefecture, at the southernmost point of the main Japanese island of Honshu. Christianity would soon be outlawed by the Tokugawa Shoguns, who wanted to close the country to all outside influences, but Christmas was practiced for 250 years by kakure Kirishitan, the "secret Christians" of Kyushu who disobeyed the law on pain of death. The spirit of Christmas was also kept alive by the Dutch traders on Dejima, a man-made island in Nagasaki Harbor which was the only place foreigners were allowed to visit during the "closed country" era (as it wasn't considered part of Japan proper). They invented a fictional holiday called Dutch Winter Solstice so they could celebrate the season without raising the eyebrows of the authorities, although I wonder if anyone was really fooled. It wasn't until the early Meiji Period that the ban on Christianity was lifted, and slowly images of the holiday began to seep into the Japanese consciousness. These days Christmas is a fun affair, a time to walk under sparkling lights with someone special or buy a gift for your kids, but it's New Year's that's the real focal point of the year in Japan.
Christmas lights in Japan are so pretty!

December 22 is Domo-un no Hi!

Today is a special day for Domo-kun, the super-cute Japanese monster character who's become so popular throghout the Internet: it's his 10th anniversary, or his 10th birthday if you will. Domo-kun was created by Japanese production company TYO to star in a series of 30 second stop-motion animation films for NHK's "BS" (broadcast satellite) network, which would serve as station identification between feature shows. The character was only intended to be used for a year, but he became so popular that NHK made him a permanent fixture. The word domo is an all-purpose Japanese polite term that can be short for domo arigato (thank you very much), domo sumimasen (I'm really sorry to have inconvenienced you), or even domo hisashiburi desu (it's really been a long time since we saw each other last), and as such the term is especially useful for foreigners who want to be polite but aren't sure which word to use in a certain situation. These days Domo-kun gets a lot of work on children's TV shows, teaching kids to bow and speak politely to their elders. We've been carrying fun Domo-kun products since the very beginning, and are proud as punch as the way our little guy has grown up. To mark this special day, we've got some rare items for Domo fans, the last stock of the cool Domo Square Plush cubes, in stock in our San Diego location -- check them out!