Friday, April 17, 2009

The 2009 J-List Mail Server Is Broken Sale, or the J-List End of Fiscal Year Sale If You Like

J-List has been having some issues with our mail server, making it difficult for some customers to receive our little cultural postcards from Japan. We're getting a new mail server built, but in the meantime we thought we'd have a sale! J-List's end-of-fiscal-year is approaching, so we're doing like Japanese companies do and having a special sales event, since we'd much rather sell our cool anime and other products to you rather than count it at inventory time. During this event, we'll send you a gift code (store credit) worth $5 for every $100 you spend for your next purchase, with both actual purchase price and shipping used for the calculation. It gives you a good excuse to throw an extra few Kit Kats or a case of your favorite Japanese gum to your cart if you're only a few dollars under the next $100 amount. The gift codes never expire and can be used any time.

Fast Food, Japan Style

Another good option if you're trying to eat in a hurry is to hit a konbini, or convenience store, where you can find anything from healthy onigiri to ready-to-eat bento lunches and even salads. My own favorite fast food would have to be gyudon, or beef bowl, basically a bowl of rice with steamed beef and onions on top, with raw egg poured over it, if you like. Recently there's been a trend of beef bowl restaurants emulating McDonald's and their giant-sized Mega Mac by offering extremely large portions with 3x the normal amount of beef piled on. They seem to be quite popular with customers.

The most popular fast food in Japan is gyudon (beef bowl).

Maria-sama is Watching My Daughter?

My daughter continues her adventures in junior high school, a place of learning and Japanese-style character building. Because her school is Christian, I know that the next few years will be interesting not only for my little girl but for my Buddhist wife, who knows as little of the history and background of Christianity as I know of the Nichiren or Shingon schools. It's funny how we take cultural knowledge for granted, for example being able to identify that this motif or that style of architecture is Catholic or Protestant, but my wife has no such background to draw from. Another big change in our home is that my wife now makes bento for our daughter every morning, and she's having great fun thinking of interesting ways to make the lunch more delicious and fun to eat, writing messages like ganbatte! ("Study hard and make us proud!") in nori, and so on.

Actually, the school isn't Catholic school or even all-girls.

What Year Is It in Japan?

Do you know what year it is? I often don't, thanks to the Japanese custom of counting years according to the reign of the Emperor in power. The current era of Heisei ("Achieving Peace") started in 1989, when Emperor Akihito ascended to the throne, making this year Heisei 21. Heisei is the fourth era since Japan became a "modern" nation; the others were Meiji ("Enlightened Rule," 1868-1912), when Japan began to emulate the West for the first time; Taisho ("Great Righteousness," 1912-1926), which saw a terrible earthquake that killed 140,000; and the long and eventful Showa ("Brilliant Harmony," 1926-1989), a time of war, rebuilding and eventually, toilets that wash your butt for you. When you live in Japan for a while, you naturally come to memorize certain events in the Japanese era system: for example I was born in Showa 43, I came to Japan in Heisei 3, and started J-List in Heisei 9. Japanese Emperors are always referred to by their era name in Japan, e.g. Emperor Showa for Hirohito, Emperor Heisei for the current Akihito, and it's quite common for Japanese to have no idea what their Emperor's name is. Akihito is 125th in the longest unbroken monarchy in the world, and he recently celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary to his wife Michiko (who comes from our prefecture of Gunma).

Congratulations to Emperor Akihito and his wife on 50 years of marriage!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Beautiful Koinobori Flying in the Sky

May 5 is Children's Day, a special time for celebrating boy children that's part of the Golden Week holidays. On this day families will proudly display a samurai battle helmet called a kabuto as they eat a special meal of rolled sushi, then the boys in the family will take a bath with sword-shaped iris flowers to make them strong in the future. Over the next few weeks, families with boy children will fly huge kites made to look like fish swimming upstream when the wind blows, called Koinobori or Upstream Swimming Carp, essentially a traditionally painted windsock which signifies a boy's journey through life. Our prefecture is quite famous for displays of these flying fish banners, and if you go for a drive you'll see dozens of them filling the sky with brilliant colors. As usual, things in Japan have a tendency to be quite old: the custom of flying carp-shaped banners started with samurai families in the Edo Period (1603-1868), while celebrating boy children on May 5 goes all the way back to the 6th century A.D.

Beautiful carp streamers, flying in the sky in our prefecture.

Anzen Daiichi Japan

Japan is a country that's very focused on safety, and there are many mechanisms in place to keep people from getting injured. For example, when a building is constructed, it's wrapped in a cloth covering that protects people walking below from being hurt by a falling hammer, which looks to my eye like they've grown the building by incubating it in a giant cocoon. Whenever there's roadwork to be done, there'll be several men with flashlights whose job it is to guide the cars around the construction, which probably isn't a profession I've thought about much back home. Since Japan is such a safe place, I imagine it was quite a surprise when a giant crane suddenly toppled over in the middle of Tokyo yesterday afternoon, bringing a 104-ton metal boom crashing down across a busy Tokyo street. Six people were injured, including two men who were trapped in a truck that was hit squarely by the falling crane, but happily no one was killed.

Fortunately the crane didn't claim any lives when it toppled.

Junior High School in Japan

My daughter has started junior high school, which is a big step in Japan, a kind of medium point between childhood and adult society. Junior high is when Japanese when first come into contact with the harshness of the real world, learning the importance of respectfully greeting your senpai (upperclassmen), getting used to wearing a school uniform everyday, and following many more rules than ever before. Bukatsu, or club activities, are very important in junior high, and all the clubs at my daughter's school are actively trying to recruit her, just like they do in anime. She has to choose one carefully, however, since many of the clubs like gymnastics and brass band take pride in practicing every day during summer vacation, which would make it difficult for her to go to the U.S. One reason we chose a private junior high for our daughter was our conviction that she'd have trouble getting used to school life at a standard Japanese public school, with straight-laced teachers who'd likely not understand her special situation as a haafu, possibly even yelling at her for dying her hair brown when it's her natural color. English is another reason we went with a private school, since junior high is the realm of "this is a pen" and "I am a boy" and we knew that our daughter would be bored at best, and might potentially have friction with teachers who were self-conscious about their own poor pronunciation of the language.

Junior high introduces students to some of the drearier aspects of Japanese society.

Monday, April 13, 2009


Although Japanese kitchens are well stocked with spoons, forks and knives, most meals in Japan are eaten with chopsticks. Children usually learn to use chopsticks around the age of 4, when they start attending preschool, and this is quite possibly the first of many adjustments to the larger group culture that children have in their school lives. Every foreigner living in Japan knows the anguish of being told by a Japanese person hashi ga jozu ("you use chopsticks very well"). While one popular response is to compliment the speaker on their use of a knife and fork, I've found you can have more fun telling them okagesama de (oh-KA-gay sah-mah deh). This is a complex phrase which literally means "Yes, thanks to you," almost as if you had leaned how to use chopsticks from the person even though you've never met them before. The phrase is a useful way of showing Japanese-style humility whenever someone compliments you on something, and since few would expect a gaijin to know it, it's fun to see their surprised expressions. Incidentally, we have many chopsticks in stock on the site, including several types of training chopsticks that can help you if you're still learning how to use them.

Incidentally, it took my son a couple years to realize that chopsticks had nothing to do with Chapstick that you put on your lips.

Chopsticks are the most common way to eat in Japan.

Japan's Cultural Ties to China

One interesting aspect of Japan is its closer cultural relationship to its nearby neighbor, China, the ultimate origin of practically all major art, science and architecture in Asia and in many ways the "mother culture" of Japan itself (fertilizer in frozen gyoza aside). Many of the foods the Japanese eat every day originally came from China, like those steamed meat buns called nikuman which have been around for more than 2,000 years. The characters that the Japanese use to write with come from China, too, which gives the two countries a special relationship, since Japanese and Chinese can read about 30% of each other's language right out of the box. One of the most famous stories in China is the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (aka Sangokushi), a historical novel written in the 14th century that's very popular among Japanese boys, who read it in manga form and play video games based on the historical battles. The high-budget film Red Cliff part II is showing in Japan right now, and my son is a huge fan, hooked as he is on all things Sangokushi. Because the movie is shown in Chinese with Japanese subtitles, it's not the most accessible film for an American like me, but I look forward to finding a version with English that I can watch.

The Chinese tale of Sangokushi is very popular in Japan in general, and in my household in particular.

What's in a word? A maid by any other name...

Words carry different meanings to different people. For example, the most common word for steamed white rice in Japanese is gohan, yet I've noticed that whenever you're eating at a Western-style restaurant like Denny's, it will always be called by its English name, rice (raisu). Another word that the Japanese have imported from English with a slightly altered nuance is "propose," which refers only to a proposal of marriage, and I'm sure that somewhere, a Japanese woman has gotten the wrong idea when listening to a business proposal from a male colleague. One of my favorite characters from Lucky Star is Patty, a female otaku from America who learned Japanese from anime and manga, resulting in her speaking the language very strangely, to say the least. In her official "image song" there's a section where she berates her classmates for mixing up the Japanese word kaseifu (what a normal maid who cleans your house is known as) and the English word maid, which carries connotations of a super-kawaii servant who will cheerfully fulfill your every request. "A kaseifu is someone that's convenient to have around. A maid is someone who can make you feel happy inside forever!" On the surface the two words mean the same thing, and yet they're totally different.

A maid is a person who can make you feel happy inside, as long as you use the English term.