Friday, May 29, 2009

Not Fitting In In Japan

Being half Japanese and half American, my kids don't always fit the mold that's prepared for them here in Japan. At my daughter's school they have something called fuuki kensa, which is an inspection by the teachers to make sure the students aren't doing scandalous things like dyeing their hair, shortening the hems of their skirts or painting their fingernails. Sure enough, the other day the teacher wanted to know why my daughter had lightened her hair, but of course it was her natural color, which caused a bit of a logical disconnect until the teachers realized she was haafu. Pierced ears are also a no-no in conservative Japanese schools, and the teachers were amazed to see that my daughter had had her ears pierced when she was younger. Of course, going to junior high school here means learning English in the formal "this is a pen" way that Japan loves so much. My daughter's (Japanese) English teacher was coming in to start one such lesson when he overheard my daughter singing one of the songs from High School Musical in perfect English, which just about made him jump out of his shoes with surprise.
(I am guessing that they probably did this in the U.S., back in the 1950s or 60s? It seems like something you'd expect to see in Back to the Future.)

Japanese Efficiency and K-On!

One way for companies to prosper is to be more efficient, finding ways to use technology to get more work done in the same amount of time. Over the past decade or so, J-List has been able to make use of various new technologies in order to be much more efficient, and I look back with amusement at how things were done even 15 years ago, before Internet-based conveniences like Skype, instant messaging and sending PDF files through email existed. Sadly, one of the major themes of Japan seems to be the triumph of inefficiency, and there are whole industries where people seem perfectly happy being less productive. When you drive into a company's parking lot, for example, there are often a few older men in uniforms who will guide you to an empty parking space, even though most would be able to find it unaided. Banks are another area where they just seem to do things differently. While my local branch in San Diego can get by with 4-5 employees, a Japanese bank feels the need to have 20 or more behind the counter, yet somehow the time each customer is made to wait is longer than in the U.S. I love the scene in episode 2 of the anime K-On, when Yui wants to buy a guitar and the other girls decide to help her earn money. The scene where the girls sit and manually click off a counter as cars drive by is classic Japan -- although it could be done cheaply and accurately with some kind of sensor built into the road, it's a time-honored tradition to hire people to count the cars manually instead. Today is the end of our company's fiscal year, the day the J-List staff has to count every item in inventory. Until recently, this work had to be done laboriously by hand, written up on paper and re-entered into spreadsheets, but finally the Japanese tax office decided it was okay to automate the process, which saves us a huge amount of time.
Of course, you can be too efficient, in which case there's only one person doing all the work in any given country, which wouldn't be fun either. What do you think about the inefficiency-as-sort-of-socialism that's practiced in Japan?
The girls from K-On get a job counting cars that pass by on the street, a common job here.

Yokohama Celebrates its 150th Anniversary

2009 is the 150th anniversary of the opening of the port of Yokohama, which began when Admiral Matthew Perry sailed his "black ships" into the harbor to demand that Japan open itself to trade with the United States. When the city was designated as Japan's first open port on June 2, 1859, it was little more than a fishing village located 30 km south of the Japanese capital of Edo, but it was quickly adopted as a base of operations by the fast-growing class of foreign entrepreneurs who helped it to modernize rapidly, introducing the first Western-style newspaper, the first gas lighting and (thankfully) the first beer brewery, which would become Kirin. Today Yokohama has grown into one of the world's foremost cities, with 3.69 million citizens and dozens of diverse industries. I've always had a soft spot for the city, no doubt due to its San Francisco-like beauty and its long history of cultural interaction with foreigners, both from the West and via its well-developed Chinatown, which is a great place to eat in. My hometown of San Diego happens to be the sister city of Yokohama, another reason for the city to be at the top of my favorite places in Japan.

Yokohama celebrates its 150th anniversary as an open city.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Japan Population +1

J-List's plan to re-populate Japan is going well, and J-List employee Jun (the guy who brings you such great toys, anime figures and Japanese snacks) has a new baby boy! Little Kaji-kun is doing great and was brought home from the hospital yesterday.
J-List: the next generation

The Japanese are Pros at Recession-Beating

The recession continues to take its toll here, with the export-centric Japanese economy shrinking at an annualized rate of 12.7% over the last quarter, the biggest decline since the "oil shock" of 1974. I'm impressed the calmness everyone in Japan has been displaying over the rough economy, but not surprised: after the hard times of the 1990s, the Japanese are professional recession-beaters, and are taking things in stride, knowing that the economy will improve. As is to be expected in any downturn, certain industries are doing worse than others. While virtually every well-known manufacturer of electronics has fallen into the red, convenience stores and low-priced conveyor-belt sushi restaurants are booming, and television production has been helped by the impending switch to digital broadcasting, too. Happily, there are some signs that the worst of the recession is behind us, as the government reports positive numbers on the rise for the first time. Production is starting to come back, too, and Toyota, Honda and Mazda are all resuming full factory output next month.

Just a last reminder that J-List continuing our "Fiscal Year is Ending" sale through the end of the month, in which we'll give you a $5 gift certificate code for every $100 you spend on the site. 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. What great products from Japan can we get for you today? Hurry, though!

Better times ahead for Japan? Automakers resume full production by next month.

Don't Be Rude to the Rice

The other day I noticed a bag of rice sitting on the table. Something about the way the grains were packed together seemed to beckon to me, and I found myself tossing the bag up and down and punching it lightly with my fist, which earned me a rebuke from my wife. I was sure she was worried about me spilling the contents of the bag all over the kitchen, but instead she said: "Don't do that! It's rude to do to the rice." Rice is extremely important to the Japanese, who eat it with almost every meal, and the local version of "eat your food because there are starving children in Ethiopia" is "eat your rice, there are seven gods in each grain who will be angry if you don't finish everything." Alternately, parents will talk about how hard the local farmer worked to make the rice, which traditionally takes 88 different steps to get it from seedling to table. The importance of rice in Japanese culture is expressed in various religious ceremonies, such as funerals, when a final bowl of rice is offered to the soul of a person who has died with chopsticks standing straight up in the rice, and in Shinto purification rituals performed before starting construction on a building (which we did, for example, when we built the J-List office).

Rice is an extremely important part of Japanese life and culture. There are no cute harvest goddesses that I know of however.

Narrow Japanese Buildings

Japan squeezes about half the population of the U.S. into a country the size of California, which alone would seem to guarantee that people would be squashed together a bit. On top of this is the fact that so much of the land here is mountainous, and the Japanese have an odd cultural dislike for living on mountains, which forces people even closer together in the cities. This scarcity of land tends to make for some oddly-shaped buildings, and as a foreigner it's fun to pick out some of the more bizarrely-shaped structures, some of which are so narrow you wonder how they keep from falling over. Creating beautiful living spaces for small plots of land (called kyosho jutaku) is a highly developed art form in Japan, and there are many architects and building companies who specialize in designing homes that take up very little land yet are unbelievably spacious inside.

There are some pretty funky-looking buildings in Japan.

Monday, May 25, 2009

English Used Freely in Japan

The Japanese do like English, and use it to add a little je ne sais quoi to their language, but always on their own terms. Politicians, for example, will pepper their speeches with English phrases like "manifesto" "innovation" and "new millennium frontier" to show how intelligent they are, despite the fact that these words often mean very little to voters. (Maybe that's the point?) Because the Japanese are free from the baggage of having to create grammatically correct English, they're able to shape the language in any way that makes sense to them. Just as the Swiss accidentally hit upon the name Swatch for their Swiss watches because the designers didn't speak enough English to know that the word sounded a little strange, the Japanese have used creative English to their advantage, coming up with terms like Re-House (a company that remodels homes), Book Off! (a used book store chain) of course the Walkman, now a part of product marketing history. Often words are simplified to make them shorter and easier for Japanese people to use, for example a convertible becomes an "open car," screwdrivers come in "plus" and "minus" varieties, and when a man no longer wants children he might consider getting a "pipe cut." The English word "my" is often repurposed to reflect the warm feeling associated with owning something, and banks will often advertise low rates for a "My-Home Loan" or promote the joy of owning your very own "Dream My-Car."

If you want to enjoy your Human Car Life, you'd better get a My-Car Loan.

Difficult Cultural Nuances in Anime

While it's fun to experience Japan through anime, I wonder how often some of the more subtle cultural nuances are difficult for viewers to pick up on. In the popular anime Clannad, there are two twins, Kyou and Ryou Fujibayashi. Although they were born just minutes apart, the oneesan (older sister) Kyou is very protective of her imoto (younger sister) Ryou, and tries to get the main character Tomoya interested in her. It's common for high school kids to call each other by their last names in Japan, but when Kyou tells Tomoya, "Since both my sister and I are 'Fujibayashi,' it must be confusing, so you can call me Kyou," she basically lets the audience know that it's she who's interested in Tomoya, ready to leap-frog over her sister by getting on a first-name basis with him, which implies a special closeness. The mechanics of polite Japanese are also difficult to express properly in English. When Kyon goes back in time to meet a younger version of Haruhi, he's not surprised when she speaks to him in a commanding manner despite being three years younger than him at the time. Similarly, there's a scene in Touch where the rough coach Eijiro Kashiwaba berates two senpai who had betrayed him many years ago. Although he's filled with anger, he never drops his polite tone when addressing his former upperclassmen, something that would be difficult to conceive of in English.
The pinnacle of moe for me, the scene when Kyou and Ryou realize they've not been chosen.

Cultural Lessons and Initial D

The other day I bought an Initial D driving game for my Playstation 3, which is fun since the mountains of Haruna, Myogi and Akagi are all real places located near J-List. I had a problem with the game, however: every time I tried to select an option I found I was hitting the cancel button instead of execute, which would bring me back to the previous menu. The reason was related to an interesting cultural wrinkle between Japan and the West: here, a circle (maru) always means "yes" or "correct" while an X (batsu) is always "no" or "wrong." So while gamers from America and Europe expect the X button to execute the current menu option, in Japanese Playstation (and PSP) games this is reversed. I first encountered this issue when studying Japanese at SDSU: when my teacher handed me my test back marked with dozens of red circles, I thought I'd gotten all the answers wrong, but I soon figured out that circles meant good. We've had similar cultural issues with the coffee maker we use at J-List, a large 12-cup model purchased in the U.S., since the girly-man coffee makers here are laughably small. The Mr. Coffee switch displays a 1 for "on" and a 0 for "off," and invariably one of our Japanese staff members will put the switch in the "circle" position, expecting the coffee to flow then wondering when nothing happens.
Living in Gunma is fun for an Initial D fan, since I can go on these real roads if I want.