Friday, September 11, 2009

Differences Between Tokyo and Gunma

I took a trip down to Tokyo yesterday for a meeting with a company about some dating-sim games. As usual, it was nice to get down to the city and feel the urban chaos all around me, and engage in one of my favorite activities, people watching. Whenever you go from my home prefecture of Gunma into Tokyo -- a 100 km journey which takes about 45 minutes on the fast Shinkansen train -- you notice a few differences. First of all, everything in Tokyo is smaller and more cramped, and even the tables in Starbucks are about 40% narrower than what I'm used to. People in Tokyo are much more fashionable, of course, and walking around Shibuya is like being transported into an issue of FRUiTs or Kera, and it can be hard not to openly gawk at all the hip people who pass you on the street. Tokyo is an interesting city to compare with other world capitals -- for one thing, although it holds 12 million people, it's one of the cleanest cities in the world. Although Tokyo does have its attraction, it can be quite a tiring place to spend the day, and I'm usually glad to take the train back home, where the population density is much less than 5500 people per square km.

Tokyo is the center of fashion and culture in Japan. But then you knew this already.

Seasonal Japan and Autumn-Limited Beer

Perhaps it's because I'm from San Diego, where the only two seasons are "nice" and "slightly less nice," but I never thought that much about the four seasons before coming to Japan. All of that went out the window when I got here and suddenly found my life changing a little bit each month as the calendar marched forward. Japan is a very seasonal place, and there are strong customs defining what should be done at each time of year -- for example, cold noodles are great in the summer, and once summer is over suddenly no one eats them anymore. It's part of the Japanese psyche that they look strangely at anyone who isn't perfectly in sync with this invisible seasonal timetable. For example, once I decided to go down to the famous Shonan Beach near Yokohama to check it out, but there was one problem: I was planning my trip during the first week of September. This caused everyone I knew to warn me about how dangerous it was to go to the seaside, and how typhoons could easily sweep me out to sea ...despite the fact that it was only a few days after the end of August. Right now, everyone is getting into "Autumn mode," ready to enjoy delicious matsutake mushrooms and the tinting of the leaves on the trees while drinking the limited Aki-Aji ("Taste of Autumn") beer from Kirin.

Autumn is time for appreciating the golden leaves while drinking Kirin Aki-Aji beer.

Fun Japanese Vocabulary Words: Sukkiri Shita and Beyond

The other day my wife gave me a haircut, since she insists that the place I usually go to -- the barber shop located inside an onsen near my house, surely one of the greatest achievements known to man -- makes it too short. When she was done giving me a trim, I shook my head and said, "Sukkiri shita!" (pronounced soo-KEE-REE shta, with a tiny pause after the first syllable and a final syllable that sounds like a cross between dee and ree), which meant, "I feel really refreshed [to have my long hair cut off]!" Sukkiri is one of an extensive group of commonly-used short adjectives that are loaded with information, and they're fun to study because they're so different from anything we have in English. Some others are bikkuri (bi-KOO-ree), meaning "I was so surprised"; sokkuri (so-KOO-ree), said when two people look exactly the same, pittari (pee-TAH-ree), said when something fits extremely well, e.g. that jacket fits you to a "T"; and yappari (ya-PAH-ree), meaning "on second thought" or "just as I suspected." Some of these words are already known to some fans of Japan, like pokkari (po-KAH-ree, "to float in the air like a cloud") which is where Pocari Sweat gets its name from, and yukkuri (yu-KOO-ree), from the famous Touhou "Take it Easy!" meme.

Let me tell you, washing off freshly cut hair in hot springs is to die for.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Bento Article at New York Times = Awesomeness

Big shout out to the New York Times, who wrote an interesting article about Japanese bento culture (registration required) mentioning us, and our friend Maki over at Bento, which J-List is proud to off to the world, is a fun way to enjoy a delicious and beautiful lunch. In addition to being much more economical than eating out, bento is healthier because it features "built in portion control." Seeing my wife make bento for my daughter, I can say that bento can bring families closer together, too. You can view the best-selling bento boxes on J-List with this link, browse the most popular bento and onigiri accessories here, or view all the bento products we sell here.

The #1 bento box at J-List right, the classic Hello Kitty Wagara Traditional Bento Set.

Japan [hearts] The Beatles

It's hard to over-estimate the cultural impact the Beatles have had on Japan, and over the decades many a student of English has learned the language by translating and analyzing Beatles song lyrics. This is true of Tomo, the J-List employee who keeps our site stocked with interesting DVDs and Hello Kitty shoulder massagers. When he came to work here ten years ago, I'm sure he never expected to meet an American quite like me, who had embraced Japanese popular culture to learn about Japan just as he had done the opposite to learn about American and Europe. One day we were talking about the classic 1972 song "Alone Again (Naturally)" by Gilbert O'Sullivan, which a former student of mine had ironically played at her wedding, clearly not understanding the words of the song. For some reason I'd been sure that the song had been sung by the Beatles, and I'll never forget the look of utter shock on his face that an American could get a fact like that wrong -- it was quite a surprise for him. Tomo was tickled to receive his copy of the Beatles Box Set of remastered discs today, which he got a day earlier than the rest of the world thanks to Japan being a day ahead. He picked up the "stereo" version, but also plans to get the "mono" version -- a total outlay of $700!

As Peter proves once again that his favorite anime is K-On, and he can't use any other anime for a web graphic.

Nosebleeds in Anime

When you start to watch anime, you naturally encounter some concepts that may seem strange at first. Like those giant, emotion-filled eyes, the way a character will get a huge sweat drop on their head to show they're frustrated, or the strange phenomenon of sneezes being caused by people gossiping about you. As you watch, you learn some of the more subtle nuances, like the concepts of senpai and kohai I talked about last time, or the way certain characters will become enamored of someone of the same sex in an extremely dramatic and/or entertaining way without warning. Another odd concept that took me a while to figure out were the nosebleeds that happened whenever a character (usually male) suddenly sees a female in a provocative situation. The joke, which has its origins in gag manga from the 1960s like Dokonjo Gaeru and Inakappe Taisho, is a euphemism for blood flow to another region of the body entirely, and it's a fun way to express the concept on-screen. Today, the anime nosebleed has come to be a meme all by itself -- there are even anime/manga in which nosebleeds are a central part of the story.

What weird anime thing confused you at first?

The anime nosebleed took me a while to get used to.

Taxes in Japan

I got a question about how taxes work in Japan the other day from a Twitter follower, so I thought I'd write about that. By and large, Japan models its tax system on that of the United States, and the details of how taxes are declared and collected are quite similar between the two countries, as are the tax rates. Some differences do exist, however. For example, when J-List pays the salaries of our employees, the equivalent of Social Security (the National Pension System) is not automatically deducted but must be paid by the individual manually. Although everyone who isn't enrolled in the similar Welfare Pension System (for employees of larger companies) is required to make National Pension payments, many young people don't bother since the consensus is that the system won't be worth much when it comes time for them to retire. Another difference is how taxes must be pre-deducted when making some payments to individuals. For example, if we were going to pay a designer to create a spiffy T-shirt for our site, we'd have to withhold 10% of his payment and send it to the National Tax Office on his behalf, something that's not done in the U.S. The consumption tax in Japan is a reasonable 5%, and since the tax is always hidden in the displayed price, no one thinks about it much.

Taxes in Japan are similar to the U.S., with a few differences.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Japanese Test English

The other day my son took a standardized test to measure his academic ability compared with other students in Japan. While he aced the math and science sections, his English test result was a surprising 86%. How could a boy whose English is so good he can watch any movie without subtitles and appreciate the subtle humor of Monty Python have gotten anything but an A? It turns out that in Japan, "test English" is a unique subject unto itself, completely separate from the living language used to communicate ideas to people, and when students translate a sentence from English into Japanese they need to follow certain forms to show they understand the underlying grammar. For example, there are different ways to translate "I will study tomorrow" and "I'm going to study tomorrow," although the two concepts are pretty much the same, and not knowing how to do this hurt my son's score. Now that he's starting juken hell, preparing for his high school entrance exams, I'm sure he'll have questions about the correct use of English grammar that I won't be able to answer to his satisfaction. For example, the Japanese spend a lot of time learning the proper use of the pronoun "whom," yet at least in my dialect of English (West Coast United States), it's a totally dead word, only used in certain specific situations (e.g. "To whom it may concern").

Japanese test English is quite unrelated to the living language you or I use.

Internet-Influenced Advertising in Japan

It's interesting to see how the Internet continues to change the world we live in. In Japan, it's common for print advertisements and TV commercials to present viewers with a computer search box suggesting a keyword they might use to find the company's website later, a practice called uebu yudo or "web guidance" in the advertising industry here. I guess there's something "organic" about customers doing a search for a product themselves compared with typing a URL in manually or clicking a link, though since so many companies are employing this technique, I have to wonder how effective it is. Another variation: ads that present an interesting story then end with the phrase, "To see the rest, visit our website," like the SoftBank commercial in which the cute dog Otosan saves a girl from being hit by a piano, after which viewers must access the company's website to see if the dog was killed by the piano or not. Recently I noticed another new change leaking from the net into realspace: right-to-left scrolling comments, the kind seen on Nico Douga, Japan's local answer to YouTube. In Nico videos, users can type in comments (like "Nice Boat") which will scroll by while other people watch the video, a visual annoyance to some yet an interesting way to feel like you're contributing to the wider shared popular culture. I caught a variety show adding these scrolling comments to video it was showing in an attempt to make its program more interesting to web-savvy viewers. Could this be the next big mega-trend from Japan?

Could Nico Video-style scrolling comments be the Next Big Thing?

Senpai and Kohai in Japan

I write a lot about the Japanese concepts of senpai, an upperclassman in a school or a senior in an organization, and kohai, the opposite, and how important these concepts are for understanding the country. Foreigners in Japan unconsciously pick up on the senior/junior system, too, and try to help newly arrived visitors get their "gaijin legs" as quickly as possible, just as they were helped by others when they got here. Back when I was an English teacher, a friend of mine and I took a newly-arrived teacher at our school out for drinks so we could get to know him. I suddenly realized the situation we were in, and said to my friend (in Japanese, so the new teacher wouldn't understand), "You and I are the senpai here. We have to pay for these drinks." He nodded, aware of the social obligation of our situation, and the two of us picked up the tab over the protests of the new guy. The role of a senpai is a complex one: you get extra respect, but you must act as a mentor and help those under you.

What was your first senpai anime? I'd have to go with the classic Orange Road.