Friday, July 17, 2009

J-List will be at Otakon -- will you?

;color:#3b3b3b">Today's update is being written beside the lapping shores of the Chesapeake Bay, as I get ready to attend Otakon 2009. I'll be there in a semi-unofficial way at booth 331, with a subset of our awesome products from Japan including PC dating-sim games and some funky Hello Kitty vibrating shoulder massagers (ahem) people have requested, along with a supply of our world-famous J-List pocket tissue and the new J-List printed bags. Please come by and say hello! We're also trying to get a late-night game panel going for Friday or Saturday. Check the JAST USA page for news on this if you're interested in being there.
Also, just in time for Otakon, we're happy to announce that our awesome new PC dating-sim game Family Project is in stock and shipping now! This is a remarkable game that illustrates the depth and quality that these games can attain, and it's one we hope you'll consider adding it to your collection. In this fabulous title, you band together with several other individuals who all have nowhere to go in order to form an impromptu family, which you call the Family Project. It's a really amazing offering by the creator of some of the best-loved games ever released in English, and we hope you'll pick it up. We've also launched the new Family Project Official Site, which is a great place for you to read up on this most memorable game.

Election Time in Japan (Ugh)

Bad news for anyone in Japan who likes sleeping late in the mornings: election season will be starting at the end of August, which means lots of politicians riding around in speaker cars shouting things like, "My name is Tanaka! I will work hard for you! Thank you for your vote!" Japan has a British-style parliamentary democracy with two houses and several political parties, which compete for enough seats to be able to form a government and elect a Prime Minister. The major parties are the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has been in power very nearly without interruption since the end of World War II; the upstart Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), hoping to win the upcoming election; the New Clean Government Party (Komeito), which is the political arm of an evangelical Buddhist sect called Sokka Gakkai, although you're not allowed to say that on TV; and the Japan Communist Party, with 400,000 members, one of the largest in the world. Japan's elections are tightly structured, and there is a long list of things candidates are not allowed to do, such as give or receive many kinds of gifts or make personal attacks against competing candidates, although for some reason attacking the Prime Minister the minute he assumes office a national pastime. The stakes are high in this election, as Prime Minister Aso (famous for being an anime otaku) and his LDP may bear the brunt of electorate's anger over the state of the economy. If the DPJ wins, it might mean some pretty disruptive times for Japan.

A poster invoking Gundam to get young people to vote.

Japanese Grammar Overview

The Japanese language is, of course, very different from English -- about as different as you can get, as languages go. Instead of a subject/verb/object word order, it's subject/object/verb, although the subject is frequently left off if it's clear from the context to make things extra-challenging for foreigners -- or so it seems at times. Japanese is an agglutinating language, which means more information like past tense or passive voice is stored in the verb form, but the upside is no helping verbs like "he would have been able to go" to memorize. One of the first things any student of the language has to get used to is grammatical particles, short "markers" which indicate parts of the sentence, such as wa and ga (the nuance-filled "topic" and "subject" markers), o (the object marker), and so on, which are not particularly difficult, just new. Then there's the question particle ka, which goes on the end of sentences and indicates that the statement just made is a question, e.g. Bento o tabemasu ka? "Will you eat your bento?" I found breaking sentences down into almost mathematical formulas that I could memorize then switch words in and out of helped me get past the different-ness relatively easily.

Japanese grammar is very different from English. Not really harder, just different.

Tipping in Japan

Unlike other nations in Asia, the Japanese have no custom of tipping for good service, and no matter how good a particular customer experience was (or wasn't), you're never expected to leave a tip. In fact, doing so would probably result in the server in question chasing after you to return the cash you accidentally left on the table. Still, Japanese know that tipping exists in the rest of the world, and part of preparing for a journey abroad involves studying up on how and when to leave a gratuity. When an American eats at a restaurant, he'll probably toss a couple dollars onto the table when he leaves, perhaps rounding up if the service was especially good. But Japanese are likely to meticulously calculate the correct 15% tip for the meal they just ate, counting out the coins on the table. I've lived in Japan long enough that some of this nervousness about tipping has spilled over to me, and I found myself putting a few $1 bills in my pocket so I could hand it to people who helped me with my bags at the airport, etc.

Living in Japan will make you worry about tipping like the Japanese do.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

More on Japanese Sound Words

Last time I talked about the sound words in Japanese and how they're a little different from the onomatopoeia we use in English. There are actually two kinds of these sound words in Japanese: giseigo ("imitation voice words") which mimic an actual sound like a bird cawing, and gitaigo ("imitation condition words"), which describe a state or action in a way that's totally different from anything we have in English. Sometimes these words work as adverbs, modifying verbs: for example, a star shining brightly in the sky is described with kira kira; an employee can work bishi bishi (fast and efficiently) or dara dara (slowly, lazily); and someone who is bilingual in another language might speak it pera pera (fluently). At other times, these descriptive words work as adjectives, expressing a state: pika pika is used to describe a brand-new toy, literally describing the sound of gleaming streaks of newness; someone who is sneaking around is being koso koso; and someone who is nervous or excited about something is doki doki. Naturally, these strange, unique words are among the most enjoyable for students of the language to learn.

Where are Japan's Patriots?

For whatever reason, one of the themes of Japanese society is that its citizens don't show much in the way of patriotism. Loving one's country is something that most Americans take for granted, and I found it puzzling when I went to Japan and found it populated with people who were pretty ho-hum on the subject of their own country, despite its many impressive achievements in the world today. This is understandable to a certain extent, since it was an abundance of nationalistic fervor that caused so much pain and suffering in the last century, and many Japanese wouldn't feel comfortable expressing too much love for their country in any visible form. This means that the only active "patriots" in Japan are, sadly, those annoying right-wingers who drive around in loudspeaker trucks blasting revisionist speeches about World War II and singer Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi's famous song "Japan! Where are you going? Japan! What are you doing?" (oddly, sung in English). It's embarrassing, but to wear a Japanese flag on your clothing essentially identifies you as someone who shares the views of these extreme groups. Personally I'd like to see normal Japanese start some kind of "take back the Japanese flag from nationalist crazies" campaign, but I don't see it happening anytime soon.

Are Japan's nutty right-wingers the only patriots in the country?

Good Times in a Japanese Izakaya Bar

Peter's favorite thing about Japan, #345: izakaya (ee-ZAH-kah-ya), a kind of cozy Japanese pub-restaurant that's filled with exotic food and drinks which seem to be tailor-made to appeal to wide-eyed gaijin. Inside one of these establishments you can find big frosty beers, hot sake and other drinks, as well as a complex world of izakaya food that's great fun to explore. Food like yakitori, teriyaki chicken on skewers; gyoza, the amazing Chinese dumplings you may know under their puzzling English name of "pot stickers"; and edamame, those delicious soybeans. I probably owe my current appreciation for fish to Japanese izakaya food culture, since there are many unique kinds of fish on the menu, like sashimi or broiled hokke fish, which the Internet informs me is called Arabesque, although I've gone for years only knowing its name in Japanese. If you visit Japan sometime in the future, I hope you'll visit one of these unique places to eat, drink and enjoy a new slice of Japan's culture. Although you'll likely be more confused than ever (I've never seen a lick of English on a menu in an izakaya), you'll have lots of fun.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Watch Out for the Bento Boys

There's a new social phenomenon in Japan right now, as single males embrace the art of making beautiful and healthy bento lunches to bring to work rather than eating out every day. It's called bento danshi, or "boxed lunch boys," and it's an idea being pushed by a popular website that encourages males to trade information and recipes on making their own bento lunches. A big part of the motivation is economic, as recession-strapped Japanese salarymen look for ways to save money, and since a bento lunch can easily be made for less than half what lunch at a restaurant would cost, single males at Japanese companies are forming support groups to help them make their own boxed lunches. A similar phenomenon is suito danshi, or "thermos boys," who bring a thermos full of iced tea so they don't need to buy canned drinks and can save that money. Incidentally, J-List has a large selection of bento boxes for guys who are looking for a less-kawaii bento experience. Why not browse them now?

Onomatopoeia, or Sound Words in Japanese

Onomatopoeia are the "sound words" that are all around us, and it's funny how they work differently in other languages. The word "boo" would be interpreted by native English speakers as expressing disapproval for something, or with an exclamation point ("boo!"), a word meant to scare someone. But in Japanese, the same sound (buu) is the "oink" sound a pig makes, or depending on intonation and the length of the vowel, the sound of flatulence. Once you've lived in Japan for a few years, you start to accept the Japanese sounds as reasonable representations of what we all hear, like nyan nyan for a cat, wan wan for a dog or kokekokko (roughly, koh-keh-KOH!-koh) for a rooster. And then you go to your home country to visit your family and you make some of these bizarre sounds around native English speakers, and they look at you like you're totally crazy.

Bad Things About Living in Japan #727: Pollen

There are many benefits to living in Japan, including being able to enjoy a cold beer while riding the train home from work or having a full selection of onigiri rice balls stocked at your local convenience store 24-7. Still, there are a few downsides, too, including being in a country with houses that are not well constructed since it's almost taken for granted that most people will have their homes torn down and rebuilt every 15-20 years, so they're not built to last. Another problem is the pollen that plagues the country in the spring and fall. Due to a short-sighted postwar decision to standardize nearly all commercial forestry on the Japanese cedar (sugi) and cypress (hinoki), huge swaths of the country are covered with these trees, which naturally release their pollen at the same time. This has the effect of creating huge problems for the one-in-five Japanese who are susceptible to pollen allergies when the trees flower, forcing many to use health masks to keep the stuff at bay and generally be miserable. I had a terrible time with allergies when I got to Japan, but after about two or three years I somehow managed to develop a resistance, and now I'm not bothered at all.