Friday, April 03, 2009

Japanese Children of Men

There's a strange trend in our prefecture these days: building new elementary schools so that they're "barrier free," a word which I'm pretty sure originated in Japan that means free from physical challenges to disabled people such as stairs. The schools are made so that they're much more accessible to those with difficulty getting around, and they're built on one level rather than on two floors, as has been the norm in the past. The reason for this new approach to school construction is uniquely Japanese and related to its low birth rate: in twenty or thirty years when the schools are no longer needed for children, they can be easily converted into homes to provide care for the elderly. This gave me a bit of a chill when I heard it for the first time -- as a big fan of the book and film Children of Men, which tells the story of humanity that has become unable to create new children, it hit rather close to home. Still, rather than build another dam or cover a mountainside in concrete on the off chance that there might be a rockslide someday, building schools so that they can serve multiple purposes in the future seems like a good idea. Remember, according to current projections the population of Japan in the year 3000 is going to be....just 27 people.

Greetings from Okinawa -- Beach Episode Time!

In just about every recent anime series, it seems there's a beach-centric episode in which the characters visit some "south seas island" where viewers are treated to plenty of fan service involving females in skimpy swimsuits. Well, it's time for such an episode in my life, and I'm writing this update from sunny Okinawa! Also known as the Ryukyu Islands, Okinawa is Japan's southernmost prefecture, which was an independent island nation until it was annexed in 1609. The history of the islands is long and varied, and a very sad chapter occurred during the bloody battle for the islands during World War II, which saw the deaths of 90,000 Japanese soldiers and 150,000 Okinawan civilians. Because of its special status as a U.S. possession from 1945 through 1972 and its current hosting of most of the the U.S. military stationed in Japan, Okinawa acts as a unique cultural bridge between the two countries. While we're here, we'll get in some quality relaxing-by-the-beach time, do some whale watching and take in beautiful Shuri Castle. And I'll probably annoy everyone by making Karate Kid references left and right.

Okinawa is unique among Japan's 47 prefectures in that it's got its own separate culture and language that's notably different from the mainland. While pretending that they're a completely homogenous, unified people despite the many differences from individual to individual is almost a national pastime in Japan proper, no one can pretend that Okinawans are cut from the same cloth as everyone else, which ends up being quite refreshing in a way. Every time I've met a Japanese who seemed "different" -- they spoke their mind more than most people, they've lived abroad or speak exotic languages -- it turns out they're from this part of the world. Okinawa serves Japan's more boring, white-bread culture the same way black music culture or (dare I say it?) Japanese animation provides an alternative choice for mainstream America, and dozens of Japan's most famous singers hail from the islands, including the red hot Amuro Namie (iTunes link), who has brought the world such tunes as "Body Feels EXIT" and "Chase the Chance." As a result of these big-name successes, Okinawa has many "talent schools" teaching voice training, dancing and other skills to the next generation of JPOP stars.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Recession, as Seen from J-List

It's interesting to observe how Japan changes during a recession, from our somewhat unique viewpoint running J-List. Right off the bat, the various distributors and suppliers we deal with on a daily basis start treating us extremely well, eager to secure a closer relationship with a company that has customers all over the world. When we comment that the flow of information about what products will be released soon could be improved -- my ultimate goal is for all Japanese companies to discover RSS feeds as a way of easily publishing information efficiently -- they listen intently to our suggestions. Before the last recession in Japan in 1998 or so, foreigners trying to do business with distributors or import companies here weren't always treated as warmly as they might have liked, and we had to work extra hard to get them to do business with us. It wasn't discrimination, but a natural reaction by extremely hidebound companies who knew that overcoming the linguistic and cultural barriers involved with working with foreigners would be extra work for them. Nowadays, though, companies in Japan are a lot more flexible and open to international business opportunities. I wonder what changes and benefits will come out of the current downturn?

Dealing with older Japanese companies can be a challenge, which recessions actually help with.

April 1st is the Season of New Beginnings in Japan

Today is April 1st, famous in the West as April Fool's Day, a custom that's been imported to Japan in limited form. While some smaller companies or kawatteru (unique) individuals might go out of their way to create April Fool's jokes for the amusement of all, it's unthinkable that a larger organization would engage in such tomfoolery in straight-laced Japan. When I told the Japanese staff of J-List about the legendary 1957 news report the BBC did on the Swiss spaghetti crop that featured farmers "harvesting" the pasta they had "grown," they were shocked -- you'd never catch NHK doing something like that. April 1st is also the beginning of anything official in this part of the world, for cultural reasons that I can't quite fathom, although knowing Japan it's probably a cherry blossom thing. The Japanese fiscal year starts today, so if you live in Japan, I hope you got your taxes filed before last night. Also, new laws usually kick in on April 1st, like the near-total ban on smoking in many JR train stations in Tokyo which went into effect this morning. The school year also starts in April, and the blooming of the sakura create a powerful image of new beginnings for misty-eyed parents as they watch their children start the first day of school.

April 1st is the season of new beginnings in Japan.

Perception Mistakes, or, Would Barbie Date a Japanese Guy?

I've written before about how people's perceptions can easily get confused when dealing with other cultures, like how millions of Japanese think that "motel" is a euphemism for "love hotel" in English, or that ice cream cones are so called because they're made of corn, which has the same pronunciation as cone when rendered in katakana. Impressionable Brits growing up thinking that spaghetti is grown on trees might be another example. My own Japanese language education at SDSU erred on the side of polite language enough that when I actually came here, the actual speech entering my ear seemed quite rude to me, although it was just normal colloquial Japanese. I remember being surprised that stop signs used the informal command form of the word stop (tomare, toh-mah-reh) rather than some of the more polite-sounding verb forms I'd studied -- a very silly thing to think. The other day I was watching a Ken Burns documentary about Thomas Jefferson with my wife, and she remarked on how amazing it was that a Japanese person could make such an interesting film about American history. "He's not Japanese. He was born in Brooklyn." She was surprised: "You mean Ken is an American name, too?" Somehow she had gotten it in her head that the name of Ken was exclusive to Japan, and anyone with that name must be of Japanese descent. When she read Ken Brown saying "Is this a church? Yes, it is" in her junior high English textbook she pictured him as a half-Japanese or nisei man living in America, and had carried that impression with her all her life. It follows that that she thought Barbie's boyfriend was also Japanese, and she took some pride that a nihonjin had bagged himself such a famous American girl.

It can be easy to get the wrong idea about other countries.


Monday, March 30, 2009

The $50 Melon

The other day my wife gave me a treat for dessert: a delicious slice of honeydew melon. It wasn't just any melon, but one of those mouthwateringly good melons that costs $50, which always seem to amuse my mother when she's visiting. Of course, the point of a $50 melon isn't the price but its value as a gift and the warm feelings it generates when the recipient and his family eat it, which is what Japan's highly developed culture of gift giving is all about. This melon was a "return gift" from Asami, the talented J-List employee who keeps us supplied with bento boxes, fun traditional products and our trademark "Wacky Things from Japan." She recently got married (congratulations, Asami!), and as an employer we naturally gave her a small "congratulations gift" to help her get started in her new life. When you receive a gift in Japan, you always give one in return to say thanks for the first gift, and while this practice can sometimes lead to "gift wars" with endless volleys of gifts and counter-gifts going back and forth, in moderation is a nice aspect to life in Japan.

Japan's gift-giving culture is deep and complex, and occasionally delicious.

Learn about Japan Through its Resume Forms

One interesting way to compare Japan's more structured society with the U.S. and Europe is to look at the standardized Japanese resume form, called a rirekisho (ree-REK-sho), the "employment history form" that serves as both job application and a personal resume here. When you want to apply for a job in Japan, be it for a truck driver or sushi chef or computer programmer, you get one of these standardized forms from the stationery store and fill it out by hand. Virtually everything that's important about you is recorded on the form: name, address, school and career history, what special certificates or qualifications you've got, as well as your hobbies and interests. Some information isn't recorded, of course, such as anything related to religion or political affiliation, and there's no space to fill in your blood type, so that companies can't discriminate against sloppy type B people like me. The strict, straight-laced employment history form is very different from the open-ended way job resumes are prepared in the U.S., usually 1-2 sheets of paper that succinctly describes a person's school and work history and career goals. Unlike the Japanese resume form, there's no set format for a resume in the States, and there are thousands of variables that could affect how yours might look. Plain font or fancy? Colored paper? Traditional layout or something less orthodox? What level of information to include? It can boggle the mind, and I'm sure that Japanese who have to write English resumes for any reason have lots of trouble knowing where to start. Although the rirekisho forms are intended for Japanese people to use, I've been asked to fill one out for every job I've held in Japan, so learning how to write one is probably a good idea for students of the language. Conveniently, we've got them in stock.

Japan's version of a resume/CV says a lot about the country.

Japan and the Atomic Bombings

Japan's history is unique in many ways, for example its decision to close itself off to outside nations for 235 years, allowing it to develop in near-complete isolation. Japan is also the only country to experience an atomic bombing of its citizens, an event which has affected the nation in ways that are difficult for outsiders like me to accurately perceive. The subject is an extremely delicate one of course, and even after 18 years I can't remember having a conversation on the topic here without things becoming very uncomfortable. Survivors of the two atomic bombings are known as hibakusha, and such individuals are eligible for financial support from the government to help with related medical care...although they often aren't interested in accepting it due to the stigma that's grown up about them in the postwar years. Recently the interwebs have been chatting about the incredible experience of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, an engineer who was in Hiroshima on business on August 6 and whose body was badly burned when the bomb exploded at 8:15 am. With the city in total chaos, he did the only thing he could think of and got on a train bound for his home in...Nagasaki, where the second atomic bombing took place three days later. "I thought the mushroom cloud was chasing me," he said. Mr. Yamaguchi is currently 93 years old, and his status as the only known double atomic bombing survivor was recently recognized by the Japanese government. I don't know whether to think of the guy as unlucky or lucky, but I'll raise a glass to him nevertheless.