Friday, April 24, 2009

Government Stimulus, or, How To Take Six Months To Distribute $120 To People

Japan's export-driven economy is in the doldrums because of the recession, but don't worry -- the Japanese government is ready to help again, this time with its new "fixed-amount stimulus package" for all taxpayers, including legally registered gaijin like me (yay). Although the paltry $120 per adult doesn't go very far, families also get $200 per child, so the overall amount wasn't too bad. Since elderly Japanese are notoriously susceptible to "it's me, it's me"-type frauds in which a stranger calls up pretending to be a son or grandson in dire need of a quick $30,000 to get out of some trouble, the government is running advertisements warning people about the potential for stimulus-related shenanigans. "No one from the government will ever ask to borrow your ATM card or bank passbook, or require that you surrender any private personal information," say the ads. I hope they're effective, but considering that there were more than 17,000 reported cases of bank fraud last year, I'm sure some people will get duped.

The Japanese government is taking steps to guard against stimulus-related fraud.

Golden Week 2009

It's nearly time for Japan's Golden Week, a semi-accidental clustering of holidays that usually fall near each other, which the Japanese government has latched onto as a great way to stimulate the economy, since people are theoretically spending more money when doing leisure activities with family than while at work. The holidays are Showa Day on April 29, the birthday of the old Emperor; Constitution Day on May 3, commemorating Japan's postwar constitution; Green Day on May 4, a day to celebrate nature; and Children's Day on May 5. While Golden Week is a nice break from the daily grind, it's all but useless as a holiday, since the other 126,999,999 Japanese in the country also have the week off, and trying to drive anywhere is a fool's errand. This year will be especially insane thanks to a new economic stimulus plan enacted by the Japanese government which lets people drive anywhere on Japan's highways for a flat rate of $10, a big reduction from the $25 it used to take me to drive 100 km into Tokyo, or the cool $130 I'd have to part with to take a trip to, say, Osaka. The only thing worse than leaving the Tokyo area during Golden Week is coming back, and the "return rush" traffic jam that happens the day before the holidays are over is not something I want to contemplate.

The rush to return to Tokyo after Golden Week is terrible to even think about.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The J-List Website is Back Up

First, we had server issue that made it impossible to access the site for several hours -- very sorry for the inconvenience. The problem has been taken care of, and J-List is up and ready to serve you now! Since it was a DDOS attack, we had to block certain IP ranges, mostly in Korea and Russia, where these bad computers seem to be located. If you find that you can't access the site for any reason, contact us and we'll fix it for you.

Keigo, or Polite Japanese

In Japanese, there's a whole subset of polite language called keigo which can be quite a challenge for foreigners to learn, since we don't have anything like "exalting" and "humble" verb forms for raising up the person you're speaking to while lowering yourself in comparison to them. I recently had instance to write an email to a certain company in Japanese, and to make sure I hadn't made any serious mistakes -- I'm sure there's nothing more amusing to Japanese people than foreigners screwing up their language -- I asked Yasu to check the email. He made quite a few changes, making the overall tone of the letter more formal and catching some of the little things I'd missed, but before I sent it out, I found myself replacing some of the extremely polite and accurate language he'd added with what I'd originally written. I think that gaijin have a certain reputation as being passionate and emotional, and I wanted to preserve some of that spirit in my email, even if it meant the Japanese I was writing wasn't as "proper" as it should have been. One important part of learning this strange and wonderful language is developing a personal balance between the various aspects of it.

The use of polite language between human beings is an interesting side of Japan.

My Favorite Food: Yaki-Manju

My wife bought me a great present the other day: a book featuring all the places to buy yaki-manju in our prefecture. A traditional food that's essentially balls of bread on wooden skewers cooked over charcoal while being painted with a sauce of miso and brown sugar, yaki-manju is one of my favorite foods, but since young Japanese are generally not interested in taking over these family businesses, more and more shops close every year -- something the our prefectural government is trying to stop by publishing the guidebook. I intend to spend the next few weekends zooming around discovering some of these great shops, since the owners are always so happy to talk with a foreigner. Other things Gunma is famous for include mountains, a really firm gelatinous food called konjac or Devil's Tongue, strong winds in the winter, and strong-willed women all year round.

Note that Yaki-Manju dosn't have the sweet beans inside that foreigners usually dislike (but which I have also come to appreciate).

You can buy yaki-manju at really cool-looking old shops like this.

The Newest Keyword in Japan is Konkatsu, or "Marriage Activities"

Japan is a fast-moving place, and you never know what new boom is just around the corner. One year, women might be flocking to fortune-tellers who promise to divine the future based their blood type, then it might be educational quiz shows in which famous TV personalities sit in "class" and answer questions about various subjects, then get graded as if they were students. One word that's on people's lips a lot these days is konkatsu, meaning "marriage-related activities," i.e. the various things that women and men do to to find the right person to marry. The idea comes from a book called The Age of Konkatsu which argues that people should put as much effort into finding the right marriage partner as they do in finding employment. As a result of this "marriage boom," a lot of single Japanese are thinking about the best way to find Mr. or Ms. Right, and are using the various services that exist for this purpose, such as omiai (formal arranged meeting) introduction companies and even various online services. Considering Japan's low birthrate -- currently the lowest in the world at 1.34 children born per female, compared with 2.1 in the U.S. -- I certainly am happy about this new trend, and wish everyone many happy babies.

Be sure and check the title of the book this girl is reading:

Japan is currently having a boom in konkatsu or "marriage activities."

Monday, April 20, 2009

Twitter in Japan

I've started using Twitter, the famous "micro-blogging" tool that lets you make short observations and send them out in real-time. I like it because the conversations you can have with people on the other side of the world are fascinating, and it's a useful way of trading information back and forth on the fly. For example, if I'm writing about English words the Japanese use that are based on British terms and want to check some facts before I push out an update, I've got several hundred really cool people who are happy to shoot me a quick reply when I post a question. Twitter is also starting to catch on with Japanese users, too, who probably appreciate its simpler learning curve compared with sites like Facebook or (there isn't one). Although Japanese users have the same 140 character limit as the rest of us, they've actually got a big advantage: because of the way kanji compresses a lot of meaning into a single (two-byte) character, you can fit a lot more information into the same space, allowing them to express themselves more freely. As a test, I googled a Japanese translation of the famous "To be or not to be" scene from Shakespeare's Hamlet to see how much of it would fit into one tweet. Nearly half of it made it in, all the way up to "...and by a sleep to say we'd end..." If you'd like to follow me on Twitter and read my random thoughts, by all means please do!

Twitter is slowly building popularity with Japanese fans, who type confusing things like "wwww" to mean laughter.

Sale Reminder!

Remember that right now J-List is having a great "Fiscal Year is Ending" sale, in which we'll give you a $5 gift certificate code for every $100 you spend on the site, since we'd much rather sell the many amazing bento, toy, traditional, snack and other items we've got in stock to you rather than count it on inventory day. This means you've got an excuse to add another few items to your cart if you're just under the next $100 level, and save money. The gift coupons will be issued as your order is processed, and never expire -- you can use them any time.

The Future in Capsule Hotels?

When humans one day live in space, I'm sure we'll make use of the experience Japan has gained with fitting people into smaller spaces. Since Japan has a little less than half the population of the U.S. crammed into an area the size of California, they've come up with some interesting ways of making do with less elbow room, such as constructing restaurants up off the ground so that cars can park underneath or building businesses with homes attached, like my own house with its small liquor shop built into the ground floor. Another example is the classic 4 1/2 tatami sized apartment that serves as standard living quarters for poor college students in Tokyo, which can be surprisingly livable thanks to well designed storage compartments and a fold-down loft area for sleeping. Another famous example of fitting a lot of people into a small space can be seen in Japan's capsule hotels, honeycomb-like capsules that contain everything you need including TV, clock, and a plug to power your laptop, quite a bargain at around $30 a night even in the heart of Tokyo. Now a new company is experimenting with the capsule hotel concept, creating luxurious "First Class Capsules" that are more like very small hotel rooms, offering a place to stretch out in privacy while still keeping the cost low, around $48 per night.
A new company is experimenting with "first class" capsule hotels.

That 100% Authentic Real Gaijin Feeling

Over the weekend I went up to Karuizawa, the charming town in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture that serves as a popular getaway for Tokyoites (and appears in quite a few anime series). While walking by an Italian gelato shop I was surprised to see a real live Italian young man, who greeted me with a very authentic-sounding buongiorno as he handed out a sample of green tea flavored gelato, something I'm pretty sure they don't have in Italy. It was an innovative idea by the shop owner to beat the recession: get an Italian to greet customers and get them into the store, and it certainly seemed to be working. There are certain times that Japanese just expect a "real" foreigner and aren't happy with anything less. A visit by "Santa-san" will certainly be appreciated by children if it's a real gaijin in the Santa suit rather than a Japanese person, and if you didn't see a real Indian chef preparing your naan in the tandoori oven you wouldn't feel like you were eating authentic Indian curry. Western-style weddings are quite popular in Japan, and no wedding would be complete without a real gaijin minister to perform the ceremony, accented-Japanese and all, and this is actually a lucrative side-job for several English teachers I know. The ultimate spot to see real live foreigners in Japan, though, would have to be Tokyo Disneyland, where a small army of performers from various countries fill roles like Alice in Wonderland while the Japanese visitors fawn and snap photos.
Sometimes there's no substitute for a real-live gaijin.