Friday, August 14, 2009

Announcing the Start of 2010 Japanese Calendar Season!

We're happy to announce the start of 2010 Japanese Calendar Season! Every year J-List posts hundreds of great calendars, which are printed exclusively for the domestic Japanese market, and our customers love having access to such a huge selection of fun and interesting calendars from Japan. The first 20 or so calendars for this year have been posted, including beautiful scenes of Japan in all seasons, breathtaking tea gardens, famous dogs and cats from Japan, cute idols like Yuko Ogura, and more. Note that the bulk of our anime/idol calendars will be posted in a couple of weeks from now, but you can get started checking out the traditional new calendars now.

Deflation in Japan and $9 Jeans

Despite some recent positive rumblings, the recession continues to be hard on the Japanese economy, pushing the unemployment rate here all the way up to 5.4%, very high by local standards. As I've written before, the two recessions Japan endured during its post-bubble "lost decade" have made the Japanese quite good at dealing with economic hard times, and it's interesting to see how companies deftly switch gears, lowering prices and offering new and innovative products to attract customers. The latest product to make headlines is a $9 pair of jeans that mammoth department store chain Aeon is hawking, no doubt hoping to entice buyers curious about how good a pair of $9 jeans could actually be in order to get them into the store. Unfortunately all the price-slashing has raised the threat of deflation, and a benchmark that tracks wholesale prices fell 8.9% in the month of July alone.

Would you like a pair of $9 jeans? Some prices in Japan are falling fast.

Confusion when Translating Japanese to English

It's funny how words in one language don't always match up with words in another, especially when you're talking about languages as different as English and Japanese. Take the word sasuga (sah-soo-GAH), which is used to express praise when one's expectations have been met. For example, if a man named Yamada-san surprised you by knowing a bit of unexpected trivia, you might say, "Sasuga, Yamada-san!" which could be translated as "Good old Yamada-san!" or "I always knew you could do it, Yamada-san!" or perhaps, "I had a feeling you woundn't let us down, Yamada-san!" These linguistic differences cause headaches for translators because there's often no "best" way to express something in another language, making translation between Japanese and English about the least exact science there is. Some other short Japanese phrases that crop up in anime yet have potentially long and complex translations in English include masaka! (MAH-sah-kah), meaning "You've got to be joking!" and yappari (ya-PAH-ree), translatable as, "just as I suspected."

Obon Festival in Japan

Japan is in the middle of Obon (pronounced "oh, bone!"), a four-day Buddhist holiday that's kind of like Thanksgiving in the U.S., in that this is when everyone heads home to spend time with family, but it's also similar to Halloween since the sky is supposedly filled with the ghosts of our dead ancestors who've come home for a visit. Much of Japan shuts down during August 13-16 as people travel to their jikka or "real home," meaning their parents' house. There they'll spend some quality time with family and make a special trip the family grave to wash it with clean water and leave chrysanthemums, which are flowers for the dead, something I found out when I accidentally bought some to give to my wife (oops). While I don't know much about Buddhism itself -- which incidentally is no different from many Japanese people, who often can't tell you why a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine are different -- I have known the Japanese to really care about their ancestors. My wife regularly looks to her dead grandmother for guidance and protection, and every morning my wife, her mother or my daughter will burn a stick of incense at the family altar to let the dead known they haven't been forgotten. Some parts of Japan have beautiful festivals related to Obon, like the floating lanterns of Nagasaki or the famous Daimonji festival in Kyoto, in which fires spelling out the kanji character for "great" are lit on a mountain above the city.

Some parts of Japan have beautiful Obon festivals, like Nagasaki's floating lanterns.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Kiki's Delivery Service Subtitle Confusion

The other day I got an odd hankering to watch one of my favorite Hayao Miyazaki films, Kiki's Delivery Service, the story of one young witch's journey out into the world. The version I was watching was in Japanese, but with English subtitles, and as the movie progressed I noticed something interesting: the subtitles didn't match the Japanese dialogue of the film very closely. They included quite a few lines by Kiki and her black cat Jiji which didn't exist in the original, and I eventually figured out that they had been transcribed from the English dub of the movie and not translated directly from Japanese. It was immediately apparent that, whoever the producers of the English version were (*cough* Disney *cough*), they didn't rate their viewers' intelligence very highly, since many of the lines added did nothing but cover five-second patches of (gasp!) silence by stating information that was obvious to viewers, anyway. It became quite interesting, seeing what parts of the movie the U.S. producers felt needed "improving" by adding meaningless bits of exposition, despite the fact that no character was actually talking. Incidentally, if you're interested in the official DVD releases of all the Studio Ghibli films, complete with extras full storyboard versions and English subtitles, J-List has them all in stock, along with a great upscaling region-free DVD player to play them on.

The English version of Kiki's Delivery Service left me puzzled by some of the changes.

South Korean ESL vs. Japan

When we were in Las Vegas we happened to see a family from South Korea playing in the pool, and I decided to say hello. The family had a boy of around five years of age, and I was immediately impressed with how good his English was: he was able to answer a few of my questions and even make a joke, saying his family was from North Korea, which got his father quite flustered. The boy knew English because he'd been studying ESL, but I was amazed all the the same. Japanese children study ESL, too, often from a very young age, but something about Japan -- its conservative and xenophobic island-nation mind-set, perhaps -- keeps most students from actually, you know, learning the language. What was South Korea doing differently that enabled children to actually interact using English? Japan should study what programs its Asian neighbors are getting results with and make changes to its curriculum, although as long as I'm wishing, I could also use a pony.

What are the South Koreans doing to learn English that Japan isn't?

Once More Into The Breach: Japanese Election Hell

Japan currently stands at the brink, staring down at an abyss so hellish I can scarcely contemplate it. I'm talking, of course, about the upcoming election in which the various political parties here will woo voters non-stop for two weeks in an attempt to win enough votes to form a governing majority. Naturally, elections are different in Japan than they are in the U.S. Most obvious to visitors from other countries are the loudspeaker cars that drive around your neighborhood shouting the name of their candidate and thanking you for your support. This annoyance aside, there are some interesting limitations placed on how politicians can advertise themselves to voters. Election posters are allowed, displayed on designated bulletin boards throughout a given city, or at private residences. Television advertising is not allowed during the election period, a big change from the U.S., where our elections seems to pivot on which candidate is running which (usually negative) ad this week. Similarly, using the Internet to reach out to voters is currently NG (a word the Japanese use meaning "no good"), and it's illegal for a registered candidate to send email or use services like Twitter to get votes during the official election season, although third parties aren't always bound by these rules. Incidentally, Japan's famous otaku Prime Minister Taro Aso was in J-List's home city of Isesaki today, here to give a speech in support of local politician.

Incidentally, don't ever steal or deface these posters, as this carries a serious penalty if you're caught by the police.

An official election poster display board;.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Japanese Language Proficiency Test

The primary test for students of Japanese is the Japanese Language Ability Test, or JLPT, used by a mind-blowing 500,000 applicants each year to measure their language ability and serve as a goal for each year's study activities. Started in 1984 in response to the rising tide of interest in Japan around the world, the test is held each December both inside Japan as well as in 40 countries internationally. There are four levels to the test, with level 4 being the easiest -- you need to know your hiragana and katakana and maybe the first hundred kanji characters -- and level 1 equivelent to the language you'd need at a Japanese university. The test is structured so that students can move up one level each year, and I found that having the test as a personal goal was an excellent motivator. The sign-up deadline is this September, so if you're interested in taking the test, now is a good time to register. For information, see the JLPT English page, and a list of links on where you can take the test outside of Japan here. There are just 118 days before this year's test -- if you need study supplies, textbooks or other products to help you learn, J-List has you covered!

Aiming to pass the JLPT is a good way to motivate yourself to study

Noriko Sakai and "Hansei"

Well, singer Noriko Sakai has turned herself in to the authorities, admitting to using stimulant drugs with her husband for the past year. If I know anything about Japanese people, it will be time for her to show hansei, a word which can be translated as reflection, introspection, and contemplation about what you've done wrong. This concept is one that everyone living in Japan needs to understand, as it's really an important part of human relationships here. It can open doors, like the time I took a trip to Guam without getting a required re-entry stamp in my password that I needed to get back into the country, so I used my Gaijin Bambi Eyes to get the Immigration staff to make an exception for me. More importantly, hansei is a device for communicating on a deeper level than mere words that you've done something wrong and are thinking seriously about it, which is a very Japanese thing to do.

Noriko Sakai falls from grace. I hope she comes out okay in the end somehow.

I'm depressed now. I think I'll watch the Gunbuster opening theme, which she sang.

Meru Otonashi and Japan's Negative Internet Culture

It's funny how the Internet can bring out the best and the worst in people, and all of us seem to change a little when interacting with others online. Depending on various factors -- the kind of virtual interaction, the degree of anonymity of the participants and so on -- even the most passive person can turn into a fire-breathing Internet troll, spitting venom at all who disagree with their views. This strange mechanism works in Japan, too, as normally mild-mannered net users shed their polite exteriors when participating in heated discussions in chat rooms or forums like the famous 2chan BBS. Japan's negative net society is so pervasive that it's changed the course of more than a few careers, such as artists caught plagiarizing by sharp-eyed 2-channelers and one of the producers of Gurren Lagann, who was pressured into resigning by online haters. One of my favorite characters from the anime and manga Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei (Goodbye, Mr. Despair) is Meru Otonashi, a quiet girl who's too shy to speak to anyone directly, so she sends them emails from her keitai. The mails she sends are so hateful and insulting that the recipients can't believe what they're reading, but since the girl is all sweetness and light in person, no one can take her to task. Of course not all parts of the Internet are full of negativity, and if you're on Twitter, feel free to follow J-List and read some hate-free, positive observations about Japan, anime and our wonky little company called J-List.

Meru-chan embodies all the hate and negativity on the Internet.