Friday, January 09, 2009

Learning Japanese Culture Through Anime

It's interesting to see what kinds of cultural issues you can learn about from anime. I'm currently hooked on Toradora, a series about a short, fierce girl named Taiga Aisaka who's a classic tsundere character, angry on the outside but sweet and vulnerable on the inside. In the story, the main character Ryuji loves a girl named Minori, while Taiga is in love with Ryuji's best friend Yusaku. When Ryuji agrees to help Taiga win his friend's heart, the two become so close that they start calling each other by their first names, something rarely done by high school kids in Japan, who usually address a classmate using their last name (e.g. "Aisaka" instead of "Taiga"). Using first names with each other sends the signal to the other students that they're dating, which causes all kinds of confusion for everyone. In the PC dating-sim games that we translate and sell, we face some of these cultural issues too, for example how to deal with the name suffixes like -san, used to maintain a degree of formality between people; -chan, usually used with females who are younger than you, or with whom you're close friends with; or labels like -senpai, senior in a class or organization. In our games, we've got the cultural context that allows us to preserve these Japanese structures so we can keep the "feel" of the game as accurate as possible, but I'm sure that in dubbed animation intended for broadcast on TV it's much more difficult to maintain the spirit of the original.

No Smorking From April

I often write about how Japan seems to be following behind the U.S. and Europe by about 10-15 years, a belief that's quite common among the Japanese themselves, who perceive that their country is less "advanced," only making major social changes after the ideas have become well-rooted in the West. It was recently announced that a starting in April, smoking will be completely banned in most JR stations in the Tokyo area, good news to those who dislike smelling others' cigarettes but a blow to Joe Salaryman who just wants a quick puff before getting on the train for home. Looking back, it was right about a decade or so ago that smoking bans really came into their own in the States with California's widespread limits on smoking in many public places in 1998, so the timing seems to be holding up pretty well. Incidentally, if you're wondering why everything "official" like government-run programs or the Japanese school year always seem to start in April, the answer is cultural. To the Japanese mind-set, spring represents a new beginning, and it's natural that important changes be timed to start in the season of renewal.

Electronic Toll Gates and Inefficnency in Japan

I finally broke down and got one of those ETC terminals for my car, which lets me get on and off Japanese "freeways" (which aren't exactly free) by driving through the special electronic gate rather than stopping to pay the toll in cash. Naturally, part of the reason I sprang for the system was my desire to feel kakko ii (cool) as I zipped through the toll gate rather than lining up behind other cars to pay the $7 it costs to travel to the next city, or $28 if I'm going the 100 km to Tokyo. But my real reason for getting ETC was that the East Japan Highway Company, which operates the freeways in this part of Japan, was kind enough to put a freeway on-ramp right near my house, saving me a lot of driving in the wrong direction when I want to go somewhere. Since the on-ramp is "ETC only" with no manned toll booth, I counted it as a rare instance of Japan becoming more efficient, an infrequent occurrence in this country that measures the volume of traffic on roads by hiring people to sit for hours and manually count cars with hand clickers as they drive by. Imagine my surprise when I saw that both of the "unmanned" ETC gates had small administrative buildings with 2-3 employees sitting inside, no doubt drinking green tea and watching the latest sumo tournament on TV while cars zip on and off the expressway. I know that Americans might be viewed as often overly concerned with efficiency at the expense of other important factors, but I have to say that if Japan is to flourish in the challenges that lie ahead, it needs to change the way it thinks just a little.

Anime Songs from iTunes Japan

J-List carries the awesome iTunes Japan prepaid cards, which allow you to buy great music from Japan for your iPod, iPhone or Mac/PC, including many great anime themes and related songs. Since there's no cental page for anime-related music on iTunes it can be a bit challenging to find the anime soundtracks you want, but a good place to start is by searching for "anime" in Japanese or English (note, all links open iTunes). Another suggestion we have is searching for songs published by Lantis, the record label that releases many of the best anime soundtracks -- click here for some nice ones. Checking out sets of songs created by users is also fun, like this link featuring the most popular tunes from popular Japanese video site Nico Nico Dougu. Some other suggestions: fans of Shana of the Blazing Eyes should check this out, that dreamy Wolf and Spice OP theme is here, there are plenty of great songs by the red-hot Kotoko here, and a really cool "Heavy Metal Anime Remix" album can be seen here. Our prepaid iTunes Cards are available in 1500 and 3000 yen versions.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A Discovery in the Village of the World! Japanese Living in a Place Like This

One thing I like about TV in Japan is the variety of shows they broadcast. From popular dramas to educational quiz shows to something called World's Greatest TV in which stories from around the world are shown, like a turtle enthusiast who recreates famous scenes from Hollywood movies using turtles, there's always something interesting on to watch. One show I like is called Sekai no Shaso Kara, or From The Train Window of the World, which sends camera crews to places like Norway, the Czech Republic, the U.S. and China to document the beautiful sights seen from trains. I caught an interesting program recently called "A Discovery in the Village of the World! Japanese Living in a Place Like This," which was about Japanese people who happen to live in unique places. First there was the story of a Japanese girl who had fallen in love with a student from Sweden and married him, and they were living in Iceland, about as far from Japan as you can get in the world. Then there was another Japanese girl who'd decided to put down roots in a village along the Amazon river in Bolivia, an unexpected place to find a nihonjin. Although these Japanese people were far from home, you could feel the cultural connection they still felt with their home country.

Japan Thinks of the Children

I recently saw that Japan had topped Save the Children's annual Child Development Index, which ranks nations on how well they care for their children. I wasn't surprised in the least: I've seen first-hand how good the country is at providing care for its kids, from offering free health care to children under 6 (costs for doctor visits and medicines are covered entirely by the health insurance system) to a structured schedule of vaccinations provided free by each city, which has helped Japan attain one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world (Japan was #3, America was...#180). Care for a child starts with the first visit to an obstetrician, where the new mother-to-be is issued a boshi techo, or "Mother-and-Child Notebook" in which everything about the child will be recorded: size and estimated weight during each stage of gestation, the results of various tests at birth, the complete history of all vaccinations, development of speech and motor skills, and so on. Japan's desire to care for its children well shows in education, too, with a much higher level of participation by parents in PTA-like organizations than I've seen in the U.S. I've never heard of school budgets being cut, either, and the subject of education seems pretty sacrosanct among Japanese politicians. As Japan tries to battle its "famine" of children brought on by the country's low birth rate, it's good to see that each child is being cared for well.

This game appears to be a DS title developed to teach new mothers the things they need to do when their babies, arrive, e.g. how to put them in the bath, etc.

Hidden Gems in Anime

Japanese animation is fun for people from all over the world because the stories appeal to us even though we may not have the same cultural background as Japanese viewers. While anime is usually bouncy and fun, it's amazing how often you can find depth in unexpected places when you dig beneath the surface. One of the students at the school for magic in Zero no Tsukaima is named Tabitha, a cool meta reference to the daughter of Samantha from Bewitched, one of the original inspirations for the "magical girl" genre of anime. The infamous Dirty Pair, known to blow up a planet or two in the course of fulfilling an assignment, turns out to be an obscure (to gaijin) reference to the 1970s-era pro wrestling team Beauty Pair...and celebrated manga-ka Beauty Hair gets his name from the same source. American science fiction crops up in anime from time to time. In The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Yuki gives a book to Kyon which (if you freeze the frame at the right moment) can be seen to be The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons, which provided some of the inspiration for the time-travel parts of the story. Similarly, the Gainax classic Aim For the Top: Gunbuster borrows heavily from two of my favorite SF novels, Ender's Game (kids being trained for interstellar combat with space bugs) and The Forever War (the drama created when people are separated by relativistic time dilation). Even the saucier side of the genre has its deep areas. H-game artist Seishojo is most famous for creating the Bible Black franchise, but did you know that every one of his game titles is actually a reference to the British progressive rock band Crimson King, whose albums include Starless and Bible Black and Discipline? Well, now you do.

Monday, January 05, 2009

2009 Japanese Calendar Sale!

Since J-List is physically located here in Japan, we're able to offer all kinds of items that'd be hard to find outside the country, including all the gorgeous Japanese anime, music, swimsuit idol, men's and traditional photo calendars that are sold here. We're having a special sale to move our stock of calendars out, so it's a great time for you to browse our selection and see what awesome calendars you want. Every year we get emails from customers who waited too long to get a certain calendar, so we advise you to check our calendar selection early. Buy 3 or more calendars and get an additional discount!

Trillions and Trillions of Yen

I see that Prime Minister Aso is set to release a 23 trillion yen stimulus package to help deal with the economic downturn in Japan's export-dependent economy. If you have no idea how much 23 trillion yen is, join the club, since I don't either. Because the individual value of the yen is so low against most other currencies, requiring 120 yen for a can of Coke, 80,000 yen to rent a small apartment or 2,500,000 yen to buy an average car, living in Japan means getting used to dealing with very high numbers. Values beyond ten million yen or so start to get really fuzzy in my mind, so when the government kicks around numbers involving trillions of yen, they might as well call it "infinity+1" as far as I'm concerned. The only hope I have of understanding large numbers is thinking about them in Japanese, thanks to the odd phenomenon that makes numbers at least comprehensible when thought of in kanji units, e.g. man (mahn) for 10,000, oku for 100 million, cho for 10 billion, and so on. For the record, 23 trillion yen is around USD$250 billion.

Interesting 4-Character Kanji Words: Yuju Fudan

There's an interesting category of vocabulary words made up of four kanji characters, which probably represents a grammatical construction left over from the distant past when Japan was still adapting the Chinese writing system for its own use. They're fun to study since the meaning of the compound words often goes far beyond the actual characters themselves. One such word that anime fans may be familiar with is ikki tousen, written with characters for "one knight" and "hitting one thousand" and literally meaning a warrior so strong he can defeat a thousand opponents. One word I had fun learning about is yuju fudan (yuu-juu foo-DAHN), written with the characters for "kindness" "softness" and "indecision." The term describes just about every male character in a romantic or "love comedy" anime series, the main character who's surrounded by beautiful females, but he can't make up his mind which girl he's in love with, so he ends up being nice to everyone. On the surface it's just a word meaning someone who can't make up his mind about something, but in the context of anime it becomes the lynchpin to many of the most dramatic character-driven stories. Some of the classic yuju fudan characters include Tomoya from Clannad, Kaoru from Ai Yori Aoishi, Makoto from School Days, and Kyosuke from the classic 80s romantic esper anime Orange Road. (Among the many Japanese study aids we offer on J-List, there's a nice book that teaches these 4-character compound words through manga.)

Japanese Anime Eyes

The word for "eye" in Japanese is me (pronounced "meh"), although there's a more poetic-sounding alternative word, hitomi, which is used in songs and other romantic settings. (Useless trivia: Humphrey Bogart's famous line from Casablanca in Japanese is kimi no hitomi ni kampai, "I raise a glass and toast to your beautiful eyes.") All Japanese have brown eyes, although they'll always tell you their eyes are "black" if asked because they think you're asking about the center part of the eye rather than the iris. Eye color is something the Japanese are quite fascinated with when it comes to gaijin, and I've had many students who wanted to talk about my eyes, ask what color my parents' eyes were or see if I perceived the world through a blue tint. One of the more interesting aspects of Japanese animation is how characters are portrayed with a veritable rainbow of eye (and hair) colors despite being 100% Japanese ethnically. Essentially, the designers are using the medium of animation to create characters that go beyond the perceived limitations of "Japanese" facial features, incorporating colors and styles without limitation. While anime characters might be perceived as looking "Caucasian" by some, they actually surpass even the most flamboyant Western features, creating an idealized world in which any type of beautiful facial attribute can be expressed.