Friday, June 26, 2009

HD Video Reviews from J-List!

J-List now publishes video reviews of our products on YouTube, via the new J-List video channel. Since we want you to be able to see our awesome products in the highest video quality possible, all our reviews are published in HD, which you can view by clicking our link to the video from the J-List product page, or clicking the HD button if viewing the video on the YouTube site. Curious about our Totoro bento boxes, or the iPhone case that lets you use Japanese phone straps, or the new Green Tea Coke? We've got reviews for you to watch. Be sure and subscribe to our channel through YouTube, and give us feedback about what you'd like to see reviewed in the future. You can also go all Social Networking and "friend" us, we won't mind!

See a video review of this product, or click here to see it in HD!

Do Native English Speakers Make Mistakes?

Last night my son needed a hand with an English essay he was writing about the different kinds of engineering careers that exist. As I was helping him, typing out some of his ideas since I'm a fast typist, I accidentally misspelled some words, which caused the word processor to underline the errors with squiggly lines. "Wow, Dad, you make spelling errors, too," my son said, wide-eyed. "I didn't know native speakers could make mistakes with English." This is a common believe among Japanese people: that every bit of English a native speaker produces in spoken or written form will be totally correct. When I was working as an ESL teacher, I made darned sure to prepare for my lessons, since not being able to answer a question about a certain type of grammar from a student is really hard on a teacher's ego. The Japanese also assume that I know every English word ever coined, and whenever I go see a doctor he'll usually explain in the most esoteric of medical terms what's wrong with me, then look a little sad when he sees my uncomprehending face.
Even monkeys fall from tree. Even gaijin

Positive and Negative Foreigners in Japan

There are, of course, many kinds of foreigners living in Japan, from English teachers to engineers to web designers and Brazilians working a dekasegi job to earn money for a few years before they return home. While everyone must decide for themselves how they feel about Japan --a country both extremely advanced yet hopelessly backward, where people embrace the latest technology yet still use 1970s-era passbooks to record bank transactions --I do try to avoid foreigners from English-speaking countries who for some reason decide to be as negative as they can be about the country, even while they live and work here through the hospitality of their Japanese hosts. Some foreigners would choose to pick up on any slight they imagine has been done to them, despite the fact that the vast majority of the "discrimination" they are likely to encounter in Japan is actually positive in nature, like Japanese people giving them gifts or $50-an-hour teaching jobs, or girls writing their phone numbers on chopstick wrappers. No matter what these pessimistic gaijin do, they can't get away from a cycle of negativity, especially if they encapsulate themselves inside a bubble with other negative foreigners, which sometimes happens with JET teachers if they're not careful. One suggestion for these individuals would be that they embrace the word mae-muki, one of my favorite Japanese phrases. On the surface it just means "forward-facing," yet it's filled with positive images of walking forward with your face raised up to see the brighter future you're moving towards. The anime character that embodies the concept of mae-muki more than anyone else is Kafuka Fuura from the anime Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei (Goodbye, Mr. Despair), the always-cheerful and optimistic girl who acts as a foil to the most depressed teacher in Japan.

Fuura Kafuka is an exceedingly optimistic girl. Plus she has those cute hair pins.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Your Environment, Japan

Your environment is something you never think about until it changes: the people, things, foods, sounds and smells that surround you every day of your life. In the 18 years since I started my Great Adventure in Japan -- I remember promising to be gone just a year -- my mother has visited me several times. Although I've been here long enough that I don't pay a second thought to signs warning you not to urinate in public or to beware of chikan (perverts), whenever my mother comes for a visit I become more attuned to some of the stranger aspects of the country. Like big trucks that play the Disneyland Main Street Electrical Parade song to let you know they're backing up. Kids going to school on Saturday. Extremely professional taxi drivers with immaculate vehicles. Peeing in a public toilet while the cleaning lady works nearby. Green traffic lights that are universally referred to as ao, which means "blue." Or the way you'll get amused comments if you don't slurp your noodles as loudly as possible -- people will actually point out how quietly you eat. It's always fun to surf the various differences and see how they compare with things back home.

Japanese men really love to pee in public places.

Silly Japanese Money Folding Trick

There's a wacky trick that Japanese sometimes do with money: fold a 1000 yen bill so that Hideyo Noguchi, the medical researcher who helped fight yellow fever in South America and Africa, makes a sad or happy face depending on which way you look at the bill. I'll teach you how it's done so you can amaze your friends with this great trick. First, take a bill and make an outward fold where the eyes are. Make an inward fold through the middle of the face, so that the eyes are higher than the nose (like little mountains). If you look at the bill from above, the face will look sad; from below, and it'll look happy. Virtually all Japanese known this silly trick, and would be surprised if any gaijin knew it. It works with any money, too, so you can have some fun with George Washington or whoever you've got in your wallet right now.

This has no official name by the way, so I recommend we all call it Baka Kane Ori, or Stupid Money Folding.

Amuse your friends with this bizarre money folding gag.

Understanding Anime Lyrics

Being an anime fan, I'm interested in the musical component of my hobby, the OP and ED (er, opening and ending themes) and character image songs that add so much enjoyment to a given anime or game. When I was studying Japanese at SDSU, I made a point of using Japanese songs to improve my language skills, transcribing and translating lyrics to help me memorize new vocabulary, since you can always sing the song to yourself if you forget a certain word. It's interesting to analyze the lyrics that make up many anime songs -- they're often completely bereft of meaning, instead capturing an emotion like walking up a sloping hill (sakamichi) with the sun setting all around you (tasogare, tah-soh-GAH-reh) while the cherry blossoms (sakura) blow in the breeze. In the Clannad After Story opening song, there's an interesting stanza:

The cold mornings continue, even though spring is already here
I wake up before the alarm clocks rings
Looking at you as you make breakfast for the three of us...

It's fairly meaningless on the surface, but if you know the show it evokes a powerful emotion that can possibly make some fans' eyes get damp (poor Nagisa...). If you want to explore fun Japanese songs in many forms, we humbly recommend the iTunes Japan prepaid cards that we sell, which let you browse and buy cool only-available-from-Japan anime, J-POP/J-ROCK, traditional and other songs on any standard Mac or PC with iTunes, as well as an iPhone or iPod touch from anywhere in the world.

Japanese songs often focus on evoking certain emotional images in listeners.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Changing Shape of Language

Words are fleeting things, and their meanings are never set in stone when you're in a country like Japan. For example, the English word "attack" is used in Japanese to mean "to actively pursue a goal," and if you had your eye on a certain girl, a Japanese person might advise you to attack her, which would sound quite odd. Similarly, the English word "mansion" has come to mean a high-rise apartment that's usually owned rather than rented, which can take a little getting used to at first. There are many examples of this subtle re-mapping of English words in Japan, including "bike" (always a motorcycle, never a bicycle), "rouge" (what lipstick is called here), "manicure" (nail polish), "hip" (buttocks), and so on. Once I was teaching English, and a (very attractive) female student introduced me to her her boyfriend who was sitting in on the class. The trouble is, instead of using the term boyfriend, she introduced him as her "lover" (in Japanese, koibito or "love person"), which caused the temperature in the room to rise considerably for the rest of the lesson.

Language is always shifting and changing.

The "Wabi-Sabi" of Simple Things in Japan

For some reason, it's easy to find yourself fascinated with the most mundane things in Japan. I have an odd obsession with train crossings here, and whenever I'm near one as a train approaches, I'm happy to roll down the car window and drink in the soothing kan-kan-kan sound the train train crossing barrier makes as the train passes. Another example of this phenomenon might be the photobook we're posting to the site today, which celebrates the austere beauty of various old and cool-looking stairs in Tokyo, including some that have been in use since the Edo Period. A Japanese person would probably tell you that these bland, normal things are interesting because of the concept of wabi-sabi, the aesthetic ideal that can be translated as "sober refinement and elegant simplicity." Derived from Zen Buddhism, it essentially embraces simplicity and modesty while forgiving imperfections such as being old, worn or common. Another example of a simple, everyday object being viewed as exceptionally cool are those clear plastic umbrellas that are carried by the millions here in Japan, which no one ever thinks twice about although everyone depends on then. (We've gotten these esoteric umbrellas back in stock today, just in time for the Japanese rainy season!)

The most famous image of wabi-sabi is a room for tea ceremony.

Things That Suck About Living in Japan: North Korea

There are many good things about living in Japan, like friendly people, a language that you can study by reading comic books, and being able to run into the convenience store with your car running without fear that it will be stolen. There are bad things, too, like being effectively illiterate until you learn to read basic kanji and having a single monolithic culture around you that isn't always flexible about outside ideas, which would present a challenge to, say, someone wanting to live a completely vegetarian lifestyle. The worst thing about living in Japan, though, is having to be next to North Korea. Between shooting missiles over the Japanese islands and doing nuclear tests to kidnapping Japanese citizens and flooding Japan with North Korean-made drugs and counterfeit money, there's just nothing good about being this close to those guys. The country is reported on in the news quite often, and everyone is quite familiar with the scary North Korean newscasters who report their government's version of the news while Japanese commentators parse it for us. One of the biggest links between Japan and North Korea is a surprising one: pachinko. Up to 40% of pachinko establishments are owned by North Koreans, who naturally send their profits back home.

Living next to "Rocket Monster" Kim-Jong Il is not a lot of fun. Anyone want to switch places?