Friday, January 02, 2009

Keeping Warm in Japan

Winter is here, and for this San Diego boy this means a constant battle to keep from freezing to death, although happily there are some innovative ways to keep warm in Japan. Japanese homes lack central heating, meaning that you're generally heating one room of your house at a time, which while economical is still hard to get used to. The most traditional way of keeping warm is a kotatsu, essentially a short table with a blanket over it and a heater inside -- just put your legs under the blanket and you'll be toasty in no time. The most popular heating method is a kerosene heater called a "stove," or a similar unit called a "fan heater" which has a computerized fan to improve air circulation; these two methods provide the most energy for your heating dollars, although the portable kerosene tank always manages to run out of fuel at the worst possible time, meaning that I have to stand by the front door at midnight with a hand pump and refill the kerosene, while trying not to get the stuff all over everyone's shoes (since there are many shoes by the front door of a Japanese house). A better option is a gas heater that uses natural gas stored in large tanks, which we switched to at J-List last year -- no more kerosene tank to fill up on cold winter mornings. There are some other options, too, including a "hot carpet" (essentially a carpet that gets hot when you turn it on) and in-floor heating based on the traditional ondol floor heating, in use for centuries in Korea. My other favorite way to keep warm is are the amazing kairo heating pads, which keep you warm for hours just sitting in your pocket, which we just happen to sell.

Japanese New Year's Comedians

The shows on Japanese TV around New Year's are especially interesting to watch. I was fascinated with a Japanese variety show special that pit various teams (professional athletes, comedians, sexy idols like Aki Hoshino and Maki Horikita) against each other doing silly sports, including one event in which participants wore a suit of velcro and had to launch themselves against a wall, to see who could stick to the wall at the highest point. New Year's is also a good time to catch some anime specials, and there are always some cool shows on, including stuff for old school fans like me. New Year's in Japan is also time to watch manzai, a kind of stand-up comedy routine from the Kansai region of Japan that usually consists of a team of two comedians, a straight man (tsukomi) and a dumb partner (boke, boh-kay). The two spar off against each other, with the straight man getting angry and short-tempered at the mistakes his dumb-witted friend makes. This year one of the most popular manzai teams is Hige-danshaku, aka "Bearded Baron," a silly comedy team consisting of two dapper-looking gentlemen who hold glasses of wine, which they clink together in celebration whenever one of them makes a joke. These two guys are everywhere this year.

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New Year's and Giving Children Money

Akemashite omedeto from J-List! We had a nice New Year's Day in Japan, writing our family's nengajo (New Year's Cards) and getting a lot of relaxing in. After hitting a Shinto shrine, which appears to be protected by an anime-like fox deity from the statues of foxes all around it, it was time to head to our uncle's house to eat a ton of food and listen to him talk about his World War II days. My wife and I were going straight there, but the kids wanted to go with their grandparents who were going to stop by some other relatives' houses first. I knew exactly what they were after: otoshi-dama, the "yearly coin" that adults give to children on New Year's, usually $20-30 per child depending on the relationship and the child's age. Visiting more relatives means getting more money, and it's a great way to motivate children to spend time with family without complaining. They managed to pull in around $150 each this year, which is quite a good haul.

These are the little envelopes they sell for putting the money you give to children in. There is of course a post-New Year's toy shopping season as kids to to buy their own favorite toys with the money they received

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Please Have a Safe and Happy New Year

Today is New Year's Eve, known in Japan by the odd-sounding name of o-miso-ka, which sounds like it means "Big Miso Day," although the miso here actually refers to the number 30, the number of days in most months under the old Lunar Calendar. Today is the day to eat Japanese soba (buckwheat) noodles, which supposedly helps everyone enjoy long lives because the noodles are long, and December 31st is the busiest day for restaurants that serve noodles. Another big activity for the last day of the year is watching Kohaku, the "Red and White Song Battle," a live show put on by NHK every year since 1951 in which female singers (the red team) battle male singers (the white team) to see which side can put on the most extravagant performances. Kohaku is "the" music event of the year, comparable to the Academy Awards in the U.S. in the buzz it generates, and virtually every top star will be there, from the venerable Saburo Kitajima to the red-hot R&B artist Thelma Aoyama, and even Jero, the first black enka singer in Japan, who really proved himself this year. (Fans of J-List's prepaid iTunes Japan cards can browse this year's Kohaku music on iTunes via this link.) After the Kohaku show ends at 11:45 pm, NHK broadcasts Yuku Toshi, Kuru Toshi (Year Going, Year Coming,) showing solemn images of people making their way to beautiful Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, Christian churches and Muslim mosques to do hatsu-mode (ha-tsu MOH-day), the first prayer for good luck and happiness of the New Year, overlaid with the sound of a bell that chimes 108 times, a Buddhist tradition tied to the 108 sins that mankind is subject to. Then, the TV display flashes "0:00," letting you know the New Year has silently arrived

Then comes Oshogatsu, New Year's Day, the most important day of the year in Japan. On that day we'll all sit around the house relaxing, eating mikan oranges with our legs in the kotatsu heater table and watching the big New Year's Marathon that's held every year in our prefecture, which is broadcast nationally on TV, since sitting around watching people run in the cold is apparently a good way to start the year. Part of the route for the marathon happens to go down the street we live on, so we can see our house on TV every year, which is always fun. It's important to relax as much as possible on New Year's Day because if you're busy on that day, it's said you'll be busy all year. Just as kids rush downstairs to see what presents Santa brought them in the U.S., Japanese children hurry to get the mail so they can see who sent them a nengajo or New Year's Card, a huge custom in Japan. These postcards are decorated with images of the Chinese zodiac animal for the new year, so this year's cards will feature many images of cows.

Of course we'll be making a trip to our favorite Shinto Shrine to pray for good luck in the new year. 2009 is my yakudoshi, my unlucky year according to a complex Japanese superstition that crossed over from China millennia ago, so I need to pay some money to have the Shinto priests say extra prayers to keep my bad luck away. According to this system, the ages of 25, 42 an 61 (for men) and 19, 33 and 37 (for women) are extremely unlucky, and you should avoid doing certain things like building a house, starting a business or otherwise making a major change in your life during these years. (The years before and after each unlucky year are also somewhat unlucky.) The tricky thing is that these years are calculated according to the old Japanese system of figuring ages, whereby a newborn baby was considered "1 year old" at birth. In other words, you should subtract a year from these dates when figuring your yakudoshi, hence the age of 41 for me (next year) is my big unlucky year. Of course, I privately laugh at some of the superstitions the Japanese come up with, like don't cut your fingernails at night or you won't be able to be with your parents when they die, but the yakudoshi belief is pretty much the primary superstition in Japan, so in the interests of experiencing Japanese culture to the fullest, I'll avoid building any houses in 2009.
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I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you, J-List's wonderful customers, for making 2008 such a wild ride for all of us. We genuinely love bringing our unique brand of Japanese popular culture to the world, and we hope to do a lot more in the new year. The way to wish someone a Happy New Year before January 1st is yoi o-toshi o (yo-ee oh-toh-shi o, lit. "please have a good new year"), and when you meet them for the first time in January, you say akemashite omedeto (ah-kay-mash-tay oh-meh-deh-TOH, lit. "congratulations on opening the new year"). So, please have a very nice New Year's celebration with friends and family, and we'll see you next year. Yoi o-toshi o!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Time For Big Cleaning, Buddhist Temple Style!

As December draws to a close, Japan is getting ready for Oshogatsu (New Year's Day), by far the most important holiday in the country. But before we can start the new year there's plenty of work to do, beginning with osoji (oh-SOH-jee), the year-end "big cleaning" that everyone does here, scrubbing their home from top to bottom, re-papering the shoji doors, replacing the family toothbrushes with new ones, and washing the car so it's spic and span for the new year. This year-end cleaning isn't just a way to make the house presentable for company: it's based on a Japanese custom called susuharai, a year-end cleansing of dirt and cobwebs that's been done at Buddhist temples for centuries. Companies do "big cleaning" too, and tomorrow is the day when all J-List employees will stop work and spend several hours sweeping, vacuuming and wiping every inch of the office, washing the windows and even the front door. Between cleaning, Year End Parties and stocking up on food for the first few days of January when most stores are closed, people are extra busy this time of year. In fact, the old name for the month of December is Shiwasu (she-WA-su), which literally means "the month when Buddhist Priests are running around being very busy."

Japan and Sarcasm

Although I sometimes wish otherwise, my personality can be a little on the sarcastic side. For example, if I saw a movie that didn't meet my expectations for some reason, I might describe it as the best movie I'd seen all year just for the sake of irony. Or if my wife praised me for helping her aunt who runs an export business and who loves having an American in the family to check her terrible English for free, I might channel Homer Simpson: "Oh, look at me! I'm making someone happy! I'm the Magical Man from Happy-Land, in a gumdrop house on Lollipop Lane!" That brand of humor doesn't exist in Japanese at all, and when I started dating my wife we actually had to go through a period of "humor training" where she learned not to take my American sarcasm at face value. My style of wry humor naturally influences my kids, since children are constantly watching their parents and subconsciously copying them. When my son was suffering through a particularly boring lesson at his school, he remarked to his friend what an "interesting" lesson it was, and how the information they were learning was something they'd all treasure throughout their lives. His friend didn't understand him at first, and it took several seconds for them to realize that he was making a joke, but one that was culturally alien to Japan.

Wither Moé?

Moé (pronounced mo-EH) is one of the primary concepts driving much of the anime world today, essentially occupying an entire sub-section inside the larger genre of Japanese animation, manga and games. Written with the character for "sprout" or "bud," it has the same pronunciation as the word moeru "to burn," and in many ways the meaning is closer to this word, essentially being translatable as "burning with passion for my favorite two-dimensional anime character." Some consider the beginnings of moé -- of anime characters so lovely they become the focal point for fans, beyond the wider setting and plot of a series -- to be the character Claris from the classic Lupin III film Castle of Cagliostro by Hayao Miyazaki, and I agree: this is pretty much the point when venerable anime magazine Animage started increasing the number of color pages so they could print beautiful artwork featuring the popular female characters that fans demanded to see. It's interesting to compare Claris with the current high-water mark of the genre, Clannad After Story, the second series based on the popular PC dating-sim game by Key, a "harem" type story about a circle of girls who are all secretly in love with the main character, Tomoya. Just look into the eyes of the character Nagisa -- you can literally see galaxies swirling in them, and the emotions conveyed by the characters, including joy, sadness, love and anger, is really something to experience. Animation creators have never been better at pushing the emotional buttons of fans, and I hope they never stop.