Friday, May 08, 2009

Japanese Females and Constipation

I've been fascinated with the women of Japan ever since I arrived here, and over the years I've managed to pick up a few bits of wisdom regarding this most interesting of animals, which I'll pass along to you if you like. First, Japanese females are extremely proper, always trying to do what is expected of them socially and always aware of hito no me, the "the eyes of others" watching them, one of the most important mechanisms for making Japanese society the way it is. They are frighteningly well-organized, and will make a promise to meet a friend two months in the future and somehow manage to actually be there without forgetting. Japanese females seem to be unable to resist popular trends, and once a new fashion catches on it will be everywhere overnight. Perhaps it's just my own experience, but I've known Japanese girls to be quite focused on marriage, and from a guy's perspective it can be unnerving when that particular subject comes up for discussion on a first date. While many Japanese females possess a Vulcan-like ability to hide their own emotions, others openly embrace Japan's unofficial religion of kawaii, and love to speak of themselves in the third person just like some characters do in anime. Because they eat rice three times a day, Japanese females are always constipated, but good luck trying to convince them to give up rice, the staple food of the country. Finally, if you ever need to buy shoes for a Japanese female but don't know their shoe size, go for 23.5 centimeters. For some reason, every Japanese girl I've ever known has had feet of that exact size.

I've yet to meet a Japanese female who isn't locked in a life-and-death struggle against constipation.

My Drive to Brazil

My daughter recently asked me if I could drive her to the nearby town of Oizumi so she could visit a friend who lived there, and I was happy to do it. In my 18 years here I'd never been to the "Brazil in Japan," famous for having the highest percentage of nikkei Brazilians and Peruvians in the country, and I thought it'd be a cool trip to make. Officially, the number of foreigners living in the town is just about 10% of the overall population of 40,000, but this doesn't account for the thousands of unregistered (illegal) residents, and the real foreign population more like 25%. It was certainly interesting to drive down the street and see all the businesses sporting Brazilian flags, and walking into the all-Brazilian convenience store was a good excuse to buy some interesting chocolates and something called Inca Kola. The people of the town are largely dependent on factory jobs at companies like Sanyo, and times are very hard for them right now, prompting the Japanese government to take the unprecedented step of offering financial assistance to any guest worker who wants to go home but who is unable to for economic reasons. I think towns like Koizumi are good for Japan, providing them with a vision of their own country that isn't so homogenized. On the other hand, the nikkei living here could do a lot more to meld with the overall Japanese society, embracing the language and customs, as I have strived to do. Whenever I attend local events like hatsu-mode (hatsu-moh-day) on January 1st, standing in the freezing cold at the Shinto Shrine to pray for happiness in the new year, I look to see if there are any other foreigners in line with me, perhaps a Peruvian who I can practice my pathetic Spanish with, but I'm always the only gaijin around.

You can get Inca Kola, the famous soft drink from Peru, in Japan.

The Age Perception Gap Between East and West

When the cute-as-a-button Aki Hoshino tried to enter a casino in Macau the other day, she suddenly found herself forbidden from doing so by the staff. The reason was supposedly that they thought the famous gravure idol -- that's a made-in-Japan French word which means a model in a sexy bikini -- was under the age of 18 and thus forbidden from entering the casino premises by law, so they blocked the door to keep her out. It seems hard to believe that a 32-year-old woman could be mistaken for a minor, but I'm inclined to believe it. I remember shopping in America with a former student who was 24 at the time, and when she pulled out her credit card to make a purchase, the clerk said, "Sorry little girl, you can't use a credit card here." It seemed that to his eyes, this average Japanese girl in her 20s seemed no older than a teenager. The phenomenon of being unable to accurately assess age between East and West goes both ways, and my wife will often snort with laughter at actors portraying high school-age students on TV, yet who look to her eyes like they're in their mid 30's or higher.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Google Touches a Cultural Nerve

Google has revolutionized the world, adding ten points to the collective IQ of humanity by allowing us to summon up the information we need quickly and efficiently. When the company added a cool feature to view classic maps with its Google Earth software, it faced a backlash from some users, as the maps in question show areas of Japanese cities where Japan's lowest caste used to live. Since the days of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the infamous almost-Shogun who started out as a peasant farmer yet became the most powerful man in the country, Japanese society had been divided into four sections: samurai warriors, farmers, artisans and merchants. (The merchants were supposedly on the bottom, but since they leant money to everyone else they were actually quite powerful.) There was one more class of people so low they didn't even merit inclusion in this social system, called the burakumin, who did "unclean" jobs like tanning leather and cremating the dead. (Similar classes of outcasts existed in other Buddhist countries, such as Korea to Thailand.) Today the subject is a huge taboo, almost never discussed openly, and using the old burakumin system to discriminate against people is forbidden under article 11 of the Japanese constitution. I was interested to see that, although the Google issue has been widely reported on by the International press and the blogosphere, it's been ignored by the domestic masu-komi, as the news media here is called (from "mass communications"). None of the Japanese staff of J-List had even heard about it until I told them.

Google goofed by using maps that reveal the secrets of the past.

Suki: All About the Word "Like"

If you watch anime in Japanese at all, one word you will probably become aware of quickly is suki which means "like," usually pronounced quickly so that it sounds like "ski." This compels all students of the language to say sukii ga suki! (I like skiing!) as soon as they learn the word since it sounds funny to the ear. The proper usage would be something like watashi wa sushi ga suki desu, literally "as for sushi, I like it," but since the Japanese love to omit words, a more common phrase would be just sushi ga suki, "[I] like sushi," since the subject is generally understood. When one person confesses their feelings for another, suki desu is what they'll probably say, although this is actually using the word for "like" rather than "love"; in at least one manga I can think of, a character had to revert to English -- "Like or love?" -- to get around the vagueness that seems built into the Japanese language. A variation of suki ("like") is dai-suki ("big-like"), usually said by a cute female anime character before they glomp a male character violently in a big bear-hug.

In the manga ending to Kimagure Orange Road, Madoka has to ask for clarification: "Like, or Love?"

Japan, where Gender Surprises Are Commonplace

Getting into anime means having your horizons broadened, learning about strange and new concepts like senpai and kohai (senior/junior in a school or organization), something that doesn't exist in English. It also means getting used to some gender-related surprises, thanks to the extensive Japanese tradition of stories involving males assuming female roles or vice-versa. Appreciating the comedy and/or drama of mixed-up gender roles goes back very far, to the kabuki plays of the Edo Period in which extremely talented male actors would fill female roles, or the Takarazuka Revue, the all-female troupe that's put on on a variety of shows with women expertly playing male roles since 1913. Anime is rife with stories that break gender rules, from the classic Rose of Versailles, which follows Lady Oscar, raised as a boy, throughout the events of the French Revolution, or the Rumiko Takahashi classic Ranma 1/2, about a boy cursed to change into a girl whenever he gets wet, usually with hilarious results. Even the dating-sim games we've been involved with have been known to bend a gender or two, such as the X-Change series. Perhaps the highest expression of the mixing-up of gender roles is Maria Holic, centered around a boy who dresses up as a girl to attend a prestigious Catholic school at the behest of an eccentric grandmother.

Maria Holic, the pinnacle of the Japanese tradition of gender-mashing.

Monday, May 04, 2009

J-List Special Sale Continues!

J-List is continuing our special End of Fiscal Year for another month, since we'd much rather sell the excellent bento, snack, anime figure, plush toy and other products to you rather than count it during inventory day. For every $100 you spend on cool products from Japan, we'll give you a gift coupon for $5, which gives you quite a nice excuse to add another few packs of Black Black Caffeine Gum (or whatever) to your shopping cart if you're near the next $100 point. Coupons can be combined and they never expire. What great products can J-List send you today?

The Nice Guy of Japan's Entertainment World Has a Bad Month

Singer, comedian and all-around nice guy Tsuyoshi Kusanagi has been a fixture on Japanese TV for the past two decades as a member of the popular group SMAP, appearing in many drama and variety shows and even learning Korean so he could be a bridge of comedy between Japan and South Korea. Given his squeaky-clean image, fans were shocked when was arrested for public nudity at 3 am in a park in Tokyo a few weeks ago. He'd been drinking heavily and had apparently thought he was at home, as his clothes were removed and folded neatly beside a bush. His arrest caused shockwaves in the Japanese entertainment world, and got the poor guy yanked from some high-profile advertising contracts as the media engaged in an unprecidented feeding frenzy. Happily, Tokyo prosecutors have stated that they won't be "sending the documents" (a Japanese idiom that means to officially file charges) against the singer, mainly because he'd shown remorse and reflection for what he'd done. While his future career is still up in the air, some years ago another SMAP member got in trouble for running away from a police officer who was trying to give him a parking ticket, injuring the officer, which got him banned from the group for six months. Hopefully Tsuyoshi will be able to get back to work soon.

The ii hito (nice guy) of Japan's "talent" world got in trouble after drinking too much.

John Manjiro, the First Japanese Man in America

The first Japanese person to set foot on American soil was Manjiro Nakahama, a 14-year-old fisherman who was rescued in 1841 by an American whaling vessel and brought to the U.S., where he received a full education in English. This was during the era of sakoku ("chained country"), when Japan was officially shut off from contact from the outside world except for a single Dutch trading outpost in Nagasaki, and it was death for a Japanese person to travel abroad or have contact with foreigners. After 12 years of living outside Japan, "John" Manjiro went home, determined to try to convince his country to end its isolationist policy. When Admiral Perry's Black Ships arrived in 1853, John Manjiro became an important figure, acting as translator and interpreter between the two parties and communicating what he'd seen in the U.S. to the Shogunate, including American ideals like on democracy. He went on to teach English, mathematics and ocean navigation, and was a major inspiration to future reformers like Ryoma Sakamoto, the "Che Guevara" of the Meiji Restoration. His contribution to the positive relationship between the U.S. and Japan in those early days can't be overrated. I read recently that the home he lived in in Fairhaven, Mass., will be opening as a museum in honor of the first Japanese to live in America, on May 7. If you're in the area, go check it out!

John Manjiro is the first Japanese to live in the U.S., and was an important bridge between the two countries.

Happy Ramune Day

Today is Ramune Day, marking the 137th anniversary of the famous Japanese soft drink's manufacture in Japan. A carbonated beverage with a lemon-lime taste, Ramune is fun to drink because of the glass ball at the top, which closes if you try to swig it too fast. While a fun novelty now, using a glass ball to seal in carbonation was quite high tech back when it was invented by British engineer Hiram Codd in 1872, quickly spreading to Japan through traders. Originally a corruption of the English word "lemonade," Ramune was a favorite of sailors in the Imperial Navy during World War II, and is closely associated with summer festivals today. The sign of a Ramune bottle is sure to cause Japanese to exclaim natsukashii! (nots-ka-SHEE), meaning "nostalgic," and I've known many Japanese to fondly tell me of the days when they were so poor all they had to play with were the glass marbles from Ramune bottles, which makes me wonder if this isn't some kind of shared group memory or something. The Ramune brand isn't owned by any one company but (like the Kewpie Doll) is generic, manufactured by several different bottlers throughout Japan. While we don't sell Ramune itself (too difficult to ship glass bottles internationally), J-List has dozens of great Ramune-themed items, from our logo T-shirt to delicious snacks and gum, and even the fun Ramune-scented parody pen.

Ramune is a popular icon of the past in Japan, and for us gaijin, of how fun and wacky Japan can be.