Friday, May 22, 2009

Japan and the New Type Influenza

Japan is doing its best to deal with the outbreak of the "new-type influenza virus" that has taken hold here, with 302 cases officially reported, although no deaths thanks to Japan's excellent medical system. Everywhere you go, Japanese consumers are snapping up those health masks and wearing them to keep the germs away. The influenza fear is having an effect on the economy, too, as travel plans to areas where flu cases have been reported are cancelled, including my son's scheduled school trip to Kyoto next month (it's been put off for a year). Prime Minister Aso has appeared on TV and urged people to remain calm, but I know this has to run its course: once Japanese people have decided they're going to freak out about something, everyone gets on board. This is thanks to the concept of migi e narae (migi eh nah-rah-eh), an old army command that literally means "Copy the person on your right!" although it's more useful to think of it as "me, too-ism." Basically, this word describes the Japanese tendency to do whatever people them are doing. If you're concerned about the new influenza, the best advice might be to stay home and avoid unnecessary contact with others. To that end, I recommend everyone buy cool stuff from J-List. That's a great idea!

Japan is currently undergoing fear of the new influenza. Good thing we stocked up on Hello Kitty masks.

The Paradigm of Living in Japan

Living in Japan means getting used to a new paradigm, and it often feels like the country exists on another dimension from the rest of the world. Maps that aren't oriented towards the North, with swastikas written on them, since the symbol (properly called manji) denotes the location of a Buddhist temple here. People shooting off fireworks while it's still light outside. Buying a six-pack of beer and paying the same price as six individual cans. Then there's the tendency for important public messages to be delivered by cute "mascot characters" like Chidejika, whose name comes from chideji (terrestrial digital) the shika (Japanese for deer). The character, who reminds people that they need to prepare for the switchover from analog to digital TV due to take place in July 2011, replaced SMAP member Tsuyoshi Kusanagi when he was arrested for public nudity at a park at 3 am.

Chidejika is the official mascot of the end of analog TV broadcasts in Japan, which has become a massive target of online parodies with the 2ch crowd:

This is a Miku Hatsune video about Analoguma (Analog Bear).

The Most Famous Monkeys in Japan

All my life, I've heard the words "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil," but I never connected the phrase with Japan particularly. Imagine my surprise when I went to Nikko Toshogu, a beautiful collection of temples about 100 km north of Tokyo, and saw the famous 17th century wood carving of the three monkeys respectively covering their eyes, ears and mouth. The phrase in Japanese is mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru (do not see, do not listen, do not speak), and it's partially a pun, since the -zaru verb ending sounds similar to the Japanese word for monkey, saru. Like most really old things, three wise monkeys originated from outside Japan, and there are variations of the monkeys and the message in many cultures. Incidentally, Nikko is just about the most beautiful place you can find in Japan outside the Kyoto region, and it should be at the top of your list of places to visit if you're looking for something to do in the Kanto area. I love walking through the beautiful temples and going to the 5-story pagoda, which houses the bones of the single most famous Japanese person, Ieyasu Tokugawa, who unified Japan and ushered in the Edo Period.

The three wise monkeys, a famous image of Japan.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Evangelion Phone: You Can (Not) Buy One

I love my iPhone, really I do. It lets me read Wikipedia in bed, check the status of the J-List servers from anywhere, practice my Japanese calligraphy, send my random thoughts via Twitter and engage in impromptu lightsaber battles with other iPhone users. Still, there are times when the more traditional keitai (cell phones) sold in Japan tempt me. Today Japan's #2 cell phone maker "au by KDDI" announced 19 (!) new models for the coming summer season, including a solar-powered phone that can be recharged by leaving it in the sun, a phone with a Kindle-like "e-paper" display that shows information such as weather reports, and a model designed by Giorgio Armani. But the most geek-tastic new phone is from Docomo: the limited-edition tie-in with the upcoming Evangelion 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance movie, designed by Gainax and director Hideaki Anno.

Docomo's new Evangelion phone is nerdgasm-inducing.

Service and Tipping in Japan

One of the most pleasant aspects of living in Japan is getting excellent service wherever you go, whether it's at a restaurant or having your tank filled by cheerful employees who will wipe your windshield and get rid of any trash in your car for you. At the hot springs hotel I stayed at last weekend, I was impressed with the amount of effort the staff put in for us, bringing the multi-course meals and laying out the futons and making sure we knew where all the baths in the hotel were located. One might be tempted to think that the staff was going out of their way because we were foreign visitors, but that wasn't my impression: if you are the okyaku-sama (the word that covers the English concepts of guest, visitor and customer) you will be treated well. Ironically, no matter how good the service is, you can't show your appreciation by tipping. Although the Japanese have imported many customs from the West, from Western furniture and clothing to medicine, the custom of tipping doesn't exist in Japan at all.

The year 1955 is alive and well at Japanese gas stations.

Dharma, 108 and the Buddhism of Lost

Like many others, I'm a big fan of Lost. Unfortunately my wife has gotten into it, too, which means I have to translate the difficult international accents for her, since the show seems to be tailor-made to torture Japanese ESL learners. In a recent episode, the character Jack had to give something of his father's to another character in order to accomplish a goal, and this made my wife observe, "Wow, this is just like Buddhism." (In this case the idea is katami, possessions of a person who has died which are distributed to his friends later.) Yes, the producers of Lost do seem to enjoy adding "pop Buddhist" themes to the story, such as the Dharma Initiative, the mysterious organization doing experiments on the island, which J-List readers will recognize as Daruma, the famous famous red statues that represent the Buddhist monk who meditated for so long that his arms and legs atrophied and disappeared. Then there's the computer with a button that must be pushed every 108 minutes to keep the world from ending. The number 108 is quite important in Buddhism, representing the 108 sins that a person must overcome in order to reach Nirvana, and on New Year's Eve the temple bells are rung 108 times. Interesting tidbit: in India, the number you call when you have an emergency is...108!

The producers of Lost are fond of adding Buddhist themes to the show.

Monday, May 18, 2009

How to Search Google in Japanese

Google is an amazing tool that allows us to find information in seconds, and I swear by it. When searching in Japanese, however, Googling can be a bit more complicated. First of all, to find information on an individual in Japanese you obviously need to know the correct kanji for their name, and searching with the wrong characters will bring up unexpected results just as misspelling a name will mess up Google results in English. There are many different name kanji for writing Japanese names, and the most common names can be the hardest to work with since there are so many possible variations. If you wanted to find information on singer Ayumi Hamasaki, for example, you'd type the name in to the kanji front-end processor (IME on Windows, Kotoeri on the Mac) then hit the space bar, scrolling through the many possible kanji. Which one is it? Surprise -- all of them are wrong. The singer writes her first name in hiragana.

Five common ways of writing the female Japanese name Ayumi in kanji.


And there she is!

My Favorite Place: Onsen Hotels

A friend from Italy came to our prefecture for a visit, so I took him to one of my favorite places in Japan, an onsen hotel in the small mountain town of Ikaho. While most any volcanic hot spring is a joy to bathe in, I'm a big fan of the larger onsen hotel experience, where you can roam the hallways in your yukata sampling several different baths, then do fun stuff like karaoke or table tennis. Japan can be a strangely uniform place, and features you can find at one hot spring hotel will usually be available almost everywhere. For example, I guarantee you'll find a vending machine selling Haagan-Dazs ice cream and a little shop inside the hotel that sells ramen to guests who get hungry late at night. Also, there's always a "game corner" where you can play video games, but for some reason they're always games from 10-15 years ago. The inn we chose is quite a famous one, having been operated by the founding family for the last 420 years -- wow. One thing I like about the dating-sim games we sell is the cultural tidbits you can get from them, and our game Tokimeki Check in! is filled with fun references to these hot springs inns, if you're curious to learn more about them.

The hot springs inn I went to was founded in 1576. Yes, I was amazed by that, too.

Star Wars vs. Japan

Since the two great obsessions of my life have been Japan and Star Wars, I enjoy it when they come together in interesting ways. Star Wars is of course heavily based on concepts borrowed from Japan, from bushido-infused Jedi Knights wearing kimono to the Obi-Wan-as-ronin themes to the word "Jedi" itself, which comes from jidai-geki, or historical period dramas. One of the most famous Japan-related inspirations in Star Wars was Darth Vader's helmet, which is based on the kabuto helmet of Masamune Date, 1567-1636 (family name pronounced dah-tay). He was an enigmatic daimyo who founded the city of Sendai in northern Japan, and who did some amazing things, like sending Japanese envoys to Mexico, Spain and Rome in 1619 to negotiate trade, just as the Tokugawa clan was beginning its policy of isolation from outside cultural influences. The pro-Christian daimyo was always open to new ideas, and he loved international gourmet food, which has given the city of Sendai a reputation for excellent restaurants today. His helmet is one of the most iconic in history, with perfect Darth Vader-style dimensions and a large metal crescent on the top, symbolizing animal horns. I personally believe the famous samurai lord contributed his name to cause of the Sith, too, since "Date" seems too close to "Darth"
to have been an accident.

Darth Vader's helmet is based on a famous samurai's kabuto.