Friday, May 29, 2009
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
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.
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.
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
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.