Friday, January 30, 2009

Asashoryu, the Happy Sumo Wrestler

Sumo wrestling is the national sport of Japan, enjoying a special legal status and support from the government. Every two months, a 15-day tournament is held, three in Tokyo and one each in Nagoya, Osaka and Kyushu. Wrestlers fight one bout each day, and the one with the best record of wins-to-losses at the end of the tournament is declared the winner. There are six ranks for the wrestlers to climb up through, with the top being yokozuna, or Grand Champion, and for a wrestler to attain this rank, he's supposed to not only be the strongest but have the proper kokoro (heart, soul) that embodies the spirit of sumo wrestling. (I can hear Yoda's voice: "...The deepest commitment, the most serious mind.") When top-ranked Mongolian wrestler Asashoryu sealed his victory at the sumo championship last week, he pumped his arms in the air in exultation, but this breech of proper sumo etiquette has landed the wrestler and his stablemaster in hot water, earning them both a stern warning from the Japan Sumo Association.

What do you think? Is it fair to ask a non-Japanese wrestler to hide his happiness and emotions that much in the name of being a good sportsman?

Japan's top-ranked sumo wrestler takes a victory lap

Language, Bilingualism and Translation

It seems that the skill of translation can be quite separate from the ability to communicate freely in a language. My son took a standardized test given to all students in our prefecture the other day, with an unexpected result: he got a relatively low score on the English portion of the test. This surprised us, considering he's fluent enough to watch American TV and movies without even paying close attention to the screen, and only occasionally has to ask me what certain specialized words mean. The test called on the students to translate sentences from English to Japanese and vice-versa, which seemed to present a special challenge for him because of the "raw" way he learned English, talking with me, interacting with his family in San Diego, and learning from native teachers at the experimental English school he attends. Because I learned Japanese as an adult, "connecting" the vocabulary and grammar to concepts already in my brain, I can think of a Japanese word like mezurashii (meh-zoo-rah-shee) and the English meaning (unusual, rare) will spring into my mind. But in my son, the synaptic bridge joining these two concepts might not have been created yet, potentially causing interesting difficulties in moving meaning from one language to the other. If you want to learn about how your own brain works, study a foreign language!

The act of learning is actually creating synapses in your brain. Isn't that freaky?

Japan, the Cash Based Society

Japan is an extremely cash-based society. Although credit cards have gotten more popular with consumers over the past couple of decades, people here are generally more comfortable dealing with cash, and often carry a lot of it. When my wife goes shopping in the U.S she brings a lot of money, and once she managed to lose her purse with more than $1000 in it, something that most folks could not imagine doing. (Happily, she got it back safely, cash included, thanks to an honest man who turned it into the police.) The Japanese sentiment that cash is kamisama (God) is expressed in the tendency for households to keep all their savings in normal accounts paying around 0.05% interest rather than stocks, and I just realized that I don't know a single Japanese person who owns any stocks in a public company. In 2006, singer Keiko Fuji (who is the mother of JPOP star Hikaru Udata) tried to board a plane from New York to Las Vegas with $420,000 in her carry-on luggage. The authorities promptly confiscated it, sure that anyone with that kind of cash must have been involved in some illicit drug deal. It appears, however, that the former star just liked carrying around lots of money when she went to Vegas since, you know, banks are such a trouble to deal with and everything. After several years, no evidence has been found to show that the singer had been involved in any wrongdoing, and happily, the money is scheduled to be returned to her soon.

Most Japanese households keep their savings in low-interest cash accounts

Test Post - Is the new server working?

Doing a sample post, to see if the server move worked. If so, this site will be faster and more enjoyable to use! Enjoy the upgrade.

Here's my new favorite image of Obama at his Mac for you.

Obama at his Mac

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Beer in Japan

Although Japan might be famous for sake, wine distilled from rice, the beverage most people order when it's time to throw a few back after work is beer. Beer has been brewed in Japan since 1870, when Norwegian-born William Copeland came to Yokohama to seek his fortune and founded what would become the first beer brewery in the country. (It's popular to visit his grave in Yokohama and leave cans of Kirin beer as an offering, to thank him for his hard work.) Today the market is dominated by the "big four" breweries of Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo and Suntory, and in accordance with standard Japanese business practices, these companies also have strong businesses selling everything from processed foods to bottled tea. (Can you imagine buying iced tea bottled by Coors?) Now Kirin has announced it will be making big changes to its flagship Ichiban Shibori by altering the ingredients and moving to a 100% hop brewing process, rather than the current formula that contains rice. Will consumers respond to the "premium" Kirin beer, or will this be a "New Coke" moment for the company? As soon as we get some in at my father-in-law's liquor shop I'll let you know.

Kirin will be changing the recipe for their flagship beer

Wasteful Japan

I love Japan, really I do, but there are times when I have to shake my head at the lack of competence of the Japanese government. Currently they're preparing to distribute money to consumers to help them deal with the rough economy here, but the stimulus package is turning into an embarrassment for Prime Minister Aso's government as the news reports on the $600 million or so that it will cost in bank transfer fees to send around $130 to each household. Japan is faced with the prospect of an unprecedented decline in the population in the coming decades, yet there's precious little in the way of a plan to deal with the situation and help maintain Japan's economic standing in the world. Japan is a nation addicted to construction, and this time of year you can't go anywhere without running into delays as work crews tear up streets then lay the asphalt surface down again. Instead of building roads that are already pretty much okay, it seems plain to me that money could be better spent to bolster Japan's hospitals, which already suffer from a lack of important staff. (And don't get me started on the road near J-List they started to build, then stopped in the middle of construction, leaving a gravel road that's no one can use and a lot of wasted money.) The lack of support for Mr. Aso's government and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party means a real possibility that the opposition Democratic Party of Japan might win a majority of seats in the next election, which would be disruptive and potentially dangerous for Japan, as the party has only been around in its current form for a decade.

Kirin will be changing the recipe for their flagship beer; Enjoy some "reverse chocolate" from Morinaga

This year it's Gyaco Choco from Japan!

Japan is getting ready for Valentine's Day, that very special time when women show their devotion to the men in their lives by presenting chocolate to their boyfriends, husbands, fathers and, if they don't mind giving "obligation chocolate" (expected in certain social situations), male co-workers. But confectionary maker Morinaga is doing things differently this year, promoting the idea of gyaku choco or "reverse chocolate," by which they mean guys giving chocolate to girls, just like they do in the rest of the world. "Instead of waiting for a girl to give you chocolate," a tag line on their website reads, "be bold and give chocolate to them instead!" They've even released some packages of their delicious chocolates printed with reversed images, specially made for trend-setting males who want to be original and give a chocolate gift to that special girl instead of waiting for her to come to him. Whether you're giving chocolate the standard Japanese way or doing things in reverse, J-List has an excellent selection of delicious chocolate snacks from Japan in stock for you right now.

Enjoy some "reverse chocolate" from Morinaga this year!

Monday, January 26, 2009

I Love the Smell of Kimchee in the Morning

Words sure are complex things, and it's interesting to consider why we use one word over another. This morning I was running late for work, so I grabbed a quick Japanese breakfast of white rice and kimchee, that delicious spicy pickled cabbage from Korea. I remarked to my mother-in-law that I was opting for a simple breakfast today, using the English word "simple" but with a Japanese accent, resulting in something like sin-puru. This got me thinking about why I'd chosen that word rather than the perfectly good term (kantan) that exists in Japanese. The answer is that words serve different purposes to people, and sometimes using a word from another language can provide a little je-ne-sais-quoi to your speech. In Death Note, you can see Light Yagami pull off one of his unique murders of the corrupt and unjust using his supernatural notebook then utter the phrase "Checkmate" when he was done. But the term used to declare victory after a game of Shogi, "Oh-te," would sound ridiculous if used in the saem situation.

Kira from Death Note, is so bad-ass

I love the smell of kimchee in the morning.

Japan's Most Influential Web User

Big changes may be coming to Japan's online world with the announcement that Hiroyuki Nishimura, founder of the infamous BBS 2ch (pronounced ni-channeru and abbreviated ni-chan), has sold the rights to the popular website to a company in Singapore. "I thought it might be interesting if I sold 2channel off, to see if there would be any difference if it was owned by a company, rather than myself," Nishimura said in an interview. 2ch is a massively popular BBS and all-around source of vibrant Japanese Internet culture, birthing such legends as Densha Otoko (Train Man), the true story of an anime otaku who won the love of a beautiful woman by getting advice from readers of the site, and Kikkoman, the super hero who also dispenses soy sauce. The site is so influential that companies and politicians tread lightly to avoid catching the ire of 2-channellers, as its users are called. No one is sure what the infamous founder is up to in transferring ownership in the site to a third party, but there's widespread conjecture that it's a legal move designed to protect him from the many lawsuits he's faced over content from the website's anonymous users. The BBS has a less-than-sparkling reputation for reasons other the libel issue: crimes are often announced on the site by deranged users looking for attention. Police have learned to take posts on the site very seriously, as they did when a 2ch users made a death threat against Mongolian sumo wrestler Asashoryu, arresting the man immediately.

The influential Hiroyuki of 2ch is Japan's version of Kevin Rose

Things That Look Strange To Foreigners

It's been said that Japan is the only country in the world that cares what its foreigners think, and I'm inclined to agree. The other day I caught a variety show that featured a panel of "talents" (well-known entertainers and idols) talking about things in Japan that stand out as odd or interesting to foreigners. For example, there's a scene in the film Battle Royale in which Beat Takeshi is holding a cheap umbrella in the rain, which looks odd to non-Japanese eyes because it's clear plastic, something you don't see in America or Europe but which is very common here. Bookstores in Japan are supposedly interesting to gaijin, too, with books that have obi or paper "belts" around the outside with advertising or other information printed on them, or cards handwritten by the staff of the bookstore recommending this book or that. Japan has many home electronics stores which foreigners love to visit, and they're often surprised to find "washlets," those butt-washing toilet seats that are so popular in Japan, which you'd never expect to see in a Best Buy. Also, most every electronics store has a theme song that they play constantly while you're in the store, designed to get stuck in your head so you'll come back and buy more. Hot towels handed out to you in most every restaurant, taxis with doors that open automatically via a hydraulic mechanism and those cool health masks were also discussed. Of course, the most interesting thing to me is that the idea of people sitting around taking in great detail about how their country and customs appear to foreign visitors. I could be wrong, but I just can't see a similar show in the U.S. being very successful, although I'd love to be proven wrong.

Books in Japan (and sold by J-List) often have a removeable paper "belt"