Friday, August 07, 2009

Would You Like to Climb Mt. Fuji?

There comes a time in every Japan-loving gaijin's life when he or she must take the plunge and climb Mt. Fuji. An active volcano 12,388 ft (3,776 meters) high that rises gracefully from the prefectures of Shizuoka and Yamanashi, Mt. Fuji is an incredibly beautiful image of the country. In Japanese its name is Fuji-san, with san being the correct pronunciation for the character for mountain, although this character is read yama in other situations, and foreigners are famous for using the wrong name (Fuji-yama). Climbing season is from July 1 to August 31, during high summer, since it's really hot down at sea level yet freezing cold at the apex. Climbers usually start from the 5th level, the highest point that vehicles can reach, and take one of three walking routes up to the top (the 10th level). As you climb up, you pass the various milestones and get a special stamp on your walking stick to commemorate each achievement; eventually you'll reach the top, out of breath from the thin air but happy to be having such a great experience. Traditionally mountains are associated with Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, and Mt. Fuji has been considered a holy place for thousands of years.

Mt. Fuji, or Fujisan, is the most famous single symbol of Japan.

Don't Write a Person's Name in Red in Japan

The other day my wife was writing my name and address on a box she was going to send to our house in Japan. As she did so, she said, "P-chan," -- my nickname at home, which I inherited from an old cat we used to have, not the famous anime pig -- "I only have a red pen, so I'm going to write your name in red. Sorry about that." I didn't understand why she was apologizing, then I remembered the odd (from my viewpoint) superstition about writing people's names in red ink in Japan (and Korea). This may date from a practice in ancient Japan in which a samurai would send an official declaration to an enemy that he planned to kill, writing his opponent's name in his own blood. There are many other death-related superstitions in Japan. The number 4 is read shi, which is the same pronunciation as the kanji character death, and it's supposedly bad luck to give a person four of something -- hence, most gifts come in sets of five. It's sometimes considered bad luck to take a photograph with three people in the frame, as the one in the middle will be likely to die young, and some people will always make sure to avoid taking pictures with three subjects to avoid this taboo. Finally, it's considered bad luck to cut your fingernails at night, because you won't be able to be with your parents when they die. Superstitions can be fun!

If you write a person's name in red, something bad might happen.

Noriko Sakai is THE FUGUTIVE

Japan's entertainment world has been turned upside-down by a perfect storm of scandals this week. First, actor Manabu Oshio was arrested for testing positive for the drug Ecstasy after a Roppongi hostess was found dead in an apartment he'd been using, apparently having died of a drug overdose. He's the estranged husband of super-cute actress Akiko Yada, who became a household name after appearing in a popular AFLAC commercial, and the news has idol and J-drama fans all over the net buzzing. Then in an unrelated case, Takaso Yuichi, a former pro surfer and husband to the hugely popular J-POP star Noriko Sakai, was arrested for possessing stimulant drugs. Soon after this event the singer disappeared, apparently out of embarrassment over her husband's arrest, but as she was known to be near the Aokigahara "Sea of Trees" suicide forest area there was some fear that she might be contemplating something terrible. Instead, it turns out that drugs may have belonged to her and not her husband, and an arrest warrant has been issued for the fleeing star, which means that the poor woman now has the dreaded suffix of yogisha or "suspect" added to her name during news broadcasts. The singer, who performed the opening themes to Gunbuster and Video Girl Ai if you're an old-school anime fan like me, has a huge following in China, Taiwan and South Korea, and this scandal has fans all across Asia wondering what will happen to our cute Noripi.

Ccute idol and actress Noriko Sakai is currently a fugitive from justice.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Lowering the Age of Adulthood in Japan

The Japanese government is moving ahead with a plan to lower the official age at which a person is considered an adult from 20 to 18. Since its emergence as a modern nation, Japan has defined an adult to be age 20, and that's when a person can legally buy tobacco or alcohol and vote in elections. There's even a major day to celebrate young people's emergence as adults, Coming of Age Day in January, when all new 20-year-olds in each town will put on brand new kimono and suits and celebrate their new status as full-fledged members of society. By lowering the age a person can vote in elections to 18, the government is hoping to increase interest in politics and social issues, although it's likely that some political groups will benefit from the change more than others. The majority of supporters of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled the country for most of the past half-century, are older and located in rural parts of Japan, whereas younger, idealistic Japanese in cities usually support other parties.

Will we need to make a new version of our famous T-shirt?

Back in Japan, and Sleepy...

Well, I'm back on the other side of the world, having made the hop from California to Japan, a journey of 24 hours from door to door. As usual, being back "home" is always a bit of a shock, from the terrible humidity to how clean everything looks from the window of the bus I took from the airport. I apologize in advance if this post stops making sense partway through -- jet lag is starting to take its toll on me.

It's back to school season in the U.S. right now, as millions of students prepare for studies to begin again in September. J-List has stocked hundreds of great items from Japan for those who want to have a little bit of Japan in their school life. Whether you're looking or awesome Japanese pens, mechanical pencils or erasers, stylish and kawaii notebooks or useful study aids to help you memorize any information, we've got great items for back-to-school season on the site. View them all now!

Gaijin in Japan, Continued

Last time I talked about the way Japanese perceive Westerners, who kind of hold a special place in society here because we're so obviously different from the Japanese faces all around us -- we basically have a big sign that says gaijin! hanging around our necks. One question I'm sometimes asked is, do foreigners in Japan face discrimination. Now, the Japanese are human beings just like people in every other country, and not everyone is always happy to have to deal with a bumbling foreigner who doesn't necessarily know the local language and customs yet often assumes that others are familiar with his country. I have naturally experienced some issues during my time here, from an inebriated yakuza who was clearly not happy to have an American breaking the wa in the public bath he was using to the occasional crazy individual who walks up and down the train cars in Tokyo shouting while everyone pretends he's not there. These instances have been extremely rare, and it's interesting to observe that even when a Japanese person is put off by you for some reason their usual response is to be more polite. I've observed before that most of the "discrimination" many gaijin face is positive, not negative, taking the form of people giving us gifts or letting us out of certain obligations that Japanese would have to fulfill, like the time I broke my vacuum cleaner through misuse and the electronics shop fixed it for free, just because. I think that if people coming to Japan keep an open mind about the country and try their best to respect the local customs and avoid being overly sensitive, there'll never be a problem.

It's not hard to spot the gaijin in this picture, which is something you just get used to here.

The Nebuta Festival in Aomori

In the summer the Japanese love matsuri, or festivals, which are a fun time to wear traditional clothes and carry around an omikoshi, a kind of heavy portable shrine that's hoisted around the neighborhood by a dozen or so people. There are various major festivals held around the country, from the Gion Festival in Kyoto to the Heso Matsuri (lit. "belly-button festival") held in the exact center of Hokkaido to the Awa Odori festival of Shikoku in which participants perform the most amazing choreographed traditional dances. One of the most colorful festivals is the Nebuta Matsuri, held in Aomori Prefecture at the top of the main Japanese island of Honshu from August 2~7, which may date back more than 1000 years. It's known for the gorgeous lit-up floats that are paraded through the city, portraying mythical gods from ancient Japan and China. It's the kind of beautiful traditional event that's tailor-made to appeal to foreigners, and many make the journey to see the Nebuta Festival every year.

The Nebuta Festival in Aomori is one of the most unique in Japan.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Perception of Foreigners in Japan

I'm often asked how Japanese view the gaijin that live in their midst, disrupting the precious harmony the country is so famous for. It's quite a complex subject, which reaches deep into the Japanese psyche and across Japan's 466-year history of dealing with these smelly, overly tall barbarians from across the sea. For the most part Westerners in the Japan of today exist in a special place where the rules don't apply, at least the same way they do for the natives. Western foreigners are mysterious, physically different from Japanese in obvious ways, and every time an American or a Brit enters an electronics store to inquire about a product, the Japanese staff get a little more nervous. While this seems like an unkind reaction on their part, to be fair to them we foreigners are awfully good at doing the unexpected, like talking to them in rapid English or asking if they stock impossible to find products. Often the first (and sometimes only) contact a Japanese person will have with a Westerner over the course of their lives is the happy, outgoing eikaiwa (English conversation) teacher they had in school, and often the image of Westerners is defined by this first cross-cultural exchange. As a result, the Japanese generally expect us foreigners to be happy people to be around, overly active and expressing our emotions freely...which pretty much matches my own personality perfectly.

Foreigners in Japan seem to exist on their own plane of reality, as you can sometimes tell from gaijin in anime series.


Everyone knows sake (SAH-kay), the famous rice-brewed beverage that's one of the most famous images of Japan. But another popular drink is shochu, a distilled beverage made from various sources including barley, sweet potatoes and rice. In decades past, shochu was seen as a lower-class drink, but in recent years its image has risen, and now it's considered quite trendy. Shochu can be drunk straight or on the rocks, but my own favorite way to enjoy it is as chuhai, that is, mixed with soda water and a flavoring like fresh lemon or grapefruit juice, and I keep wondering when restaurants and bars in America will discover this exotic yet highly drinkable Japanese concoction and popularize it. If you're interested in seeing what this unique beverage tastes like, we're happy to announce that the amazing traditional Japanese Food Drops series now includes shochu flavored candies. Try them now!

I'm a big fan of the Japanese drink known as shochu. I drink it all the time (bad Japanese pun).

The Bilingual Brain

The other day I was writing one of my J-List updates, and a rather embarrassing thing happened to me: I found myself unable to recall an English word I needed, although I knew what it was in Japanese. The word in question was sekkyoku-teki (sek-kyo-koo teh-kee), which means assertive or proactive or forward-thinking, and for some odd reason only the brain can understand, I could recall the Japanese term but not its English counterpart. So I asked my Japanese wife what the word was in English, and she told me, no doubt smirking to herself; I thanked her, remembering the infrequent but fun occasions when she momentarily forgot how to write a certain kanji character and I was able to whip it out for her. Being bilingual can be fun, but a little weird, too!