Friday, September 18, 2009

The Golden Rule of Japanese Society

If there's a Golden Rule to Japanese society, it's this: don't cause meiwaku (may-wah-ku), meaning inconvenience or bother, to others. Whether it's trying to keep from making too much noise and annoying your neighbors or avoiding using a cell phone on a crowded train, most Japanese do strive to avoid bothering others, which is something I really like about the country. Sometimes, of course, it can be difficult to keep from causing inconvenience, a fact I learned when I took the overnight bus to Aomori. As soon as the bus pulled out, the lights were switched off completely, and to my amazement everyone in the bus seemed to curl up and go to sleep. I certainly didn't want to destroy the wa around me by switching on my little light and getting some work done on my Macbook, but I wasn't about to go to sleep that early.

You've never had stress until you tried to make no sound and emit no light for 12 hours.

Other Stuff: Onigiri & Conventions

Onigiri (also called omusubi) are the "soul food" of Japan, rice balls that are eaten almost daily here, very similar to sandwiches in the West. Usually triangle shaped, they can in fact come in just about any shape you like, and the staff of J-List loves to find fun items that help you make, say, Pikachu or Hello Kitty shaped rice balls. Why not browse our selection of fun onigiri products now?

J-List will be attending the first-annual Long Beach Comic Con, a new convention that looks like it's going to be loads of fun, from the first-ever appearance of Berkeley Breathed to the Robot Chicken staff, plus (heh). Our staff be in booth 117, so if you're going to be at the show, come say hi!

Japan's General Motors: JAL

The General Motors of Japan, meaning the company that's come to represent the recession more than any other, is Japan Airlines (JAL), currently struggling with a massive debt and lagging operations as the weak economy keeps people from flying. Because the company is partially state-owned, it's going to prove a headache for the new government, although the newly appointed transport minister has already said that bankruptcy will not be considered. JAL certainly is a nice airline, and I like flying with them whenever I get the chance, but I'm pretty sure they have a ways to go when it comes to improving efficiency. When we flew down from Aomori to Tokyo we used JAL, and in the airport I happened to see two flight attendants standing in the lobby, holding little signs that advertised the benefits of signing up for a JAL frequent flyer card. Paying people to stand around and hold signs isn't that rare in Japan -- one of my wife's first jobs standing in the background at events holding a "no smoking" sign and smiling -- but the idea of these highly trained professional women being paid to do absolutely nothing seemed to speak volumes about the company. A decade ago Nissan had a similar problem, an odd psychological resistance to eliminating jobs that couldn't be supported by their business, and it took outside help in the form of Brazillian-French-Lebanese Carlos Ghosn to turn things around.

Struggling JAL is the poster-child of the recession in Japan.


Takarazuka: Girls Who Look Like Boys

It seems that every time I notice a really attractive Japanese actress on TV, like the talented Hitomi Kuroki, my wife tells me, "Yes, she was a Takarazuka performer, that's why she has a kind of power about her." Takarazuka is an all-female theatre troupe founded in 1914 that's kind of the female answer to Kabuki, the all-male theatre tradition that dates back to the Edo Period. In Takarazuka, all the performances are done by women, and the skill with which the male roles are performed is really amazing to see. Just as Kabuki deals with Japanese stories, Takarazuka gets its inspiration from the West, performing stories like Gone with the Wind, Casablanca and to the Rose of Versailles -- there's even a stage version of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney game ("Objection!"). To be a Takarazuka performer is a hard life, and those who succeed seem to have an aura of poise and grace around them, often going on to enjoy amazing careers. Another former Takarazuka being talked about these days is Miyuki Hatoyama, the wife of the new Prime Minister. (Yes, the one who insists she flew to Venus in a UFO.)

I'm fascinated by the enigmatic women of Takarazuka.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Additional Info on Tolls

I got some feedback on the free road post from a reader and thought I'd throw out some more information for any who are interested.

Basically, everyone dislikes having to pay to use the freeways, of course. Spending $25 to drive down to Tokyo is no fun, and spending $150 to go all the way up to Aomori would be equally bad. One of my thoughts though is, suddenly making this stable structure obsolete raises a ton of issues. Like, do you make the roads free for everyone, or just families? Do you do it all the time, or just on weekends, as the current "go anywhere for $10 on Sat-Sun and holidays" policy works.

How about for trucks that bring goods around the country, will they drive for free? If so, how will that effect the wholesale pricing structure of every company in Japan? When Yamato (the delivery company, not the battleship) delivers Totoro plush toys to J-List, we pay shipping, obviously. But what's to stop us from demanding that Yamato halve their shipping rates since the freeways no longer cost them as much? What about the few thousand employees work work to collect the tolls now, where will they go when they have no jobs? How many vacations will be cancelled ahead of time because everyone is so worried about the traffic jams that will clog every freeway? Everyone in Japan just shelled out $120 for these little ETC readers so they could get the $10 freeway discount, but now if they make all roads free, where do we apply for a refund? These are the kinds of things being discussed in the country these days.

I'm really torn between liking and hating the new Prime Minister. On the one hand, the old LDP was a joke, unable to bring about the slightest reforms and basically unable to lead without changing PM's every year, just about. (Aside, Japan has had 12 leaders since I came here in 1991, while the U.K. has had just three.) They were extremely wasteful, tearing up roads just to create jobs, damming every river in the country, and doing things like building a Shinkansen to Hokkaido despite the fact that airplanes are clearly more efficient than trains. Yet the new DPJ are so foolish, being so anti-business that they're going to do things like set arbitrary emissions reduction targets without even asking business leaders what they think is possible. And it's hilarious how they talk about the environment while basically giving everyone a reason to drive for free.

I feel sad for Japan, since I love the country so much is such a basket case. Hope things look better soon.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Politics Update from Japan

Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leader Yukio Hatoyama is all over the news these days as he prepares to take over administration of the government after his party's landslide victory last month, creating what will be only the third cabinet not led by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since 1955. It may be rough going, though, and already some of the DPJs's plans are facing difficulty, such as the proposal to make all of Japan's freeways "free." The idea is getting little support from local governments who depend on the income from tolls to build roads, and also from green-minded politicians who point out that encouraging people to drive more than they do will increase carbon emissions. Although Hatoyama has positioned his party as a down-to-Earth group focused on protecting the average voter, even going so far as to refuse to work with a well-known business organization (Keidanren) to avoid its influencing his government, he's not exactly the Japanese version of Joe Six-Pack. His party criticized the LDP for its dynasties of politicians -- all three of Japan's last three prime ministers are sons or grandsons of former prime ministers, a concept referred to as "thoroughbred" here -- yet Hatoyama is no different there, as his grandfather held the job back in the 1950s. I just hope Japan can get some actual leadership this time, since that's what Japan seems to be lacking in more than anything.

Japan might make its freeways truly "free," but what repercussions would there be?

Long and Short Vowels in Japanese

What a difference an elongated vowel can make. Japanese is quite different from English, having had a totally unique developmental history -- it's supposedly related to Mongolian, Basque, Turkish and possibly Hungarian, don't ask me how -- and it sport linguistic concepts that are strange to English speakers at first. One is a strong differentiation between short vowels (like the o in ocha) and long vowels (the first syllable of tofu, the second syllable of Shirow's name). If you've ever wondered why someone whose last name is Sato writes it as Satoh or Satou, it's because he's trying to express the longer second syllable as accurately as he can, even though it might not make any different to how we pronounce his name in English. Sometimes these vowels can cause transliteration issues. For example, shoujo (with a long vowel) means "girl," while shojo (short vowel) means something else entirely (a girl who is still, ahem, pure). Which spelling is correct? It can be hard to say. Accuracy can only be taken so far -- otherwise we'd be wearing Doumo-kun T-shirts and listing Japan's capital as Toukyou.

Doumo attack...?!

Harajuku for Old Folks: Sugamo

The combination of one of the lowest birthrates in the world coupled with the lack of an inflow of new blood in the form of immigration threatens to start taking its toll in Japanese society, and already you can see signs of the country's graying. Like the time I went to go to a toy store that I'd been to many times, only to find that it had gone out of business and been replaced by a store selling...Buddhist altars and grave stones. (That was a shocker.) These days an area of Tokyo called Sugamo is popular with older Japanese as a place to buy products to help you live a long and healthy life, like bright red underwear, said to bring good luck and good health in Japan. They sell many healthy foods, like garlic miso, too-- sounds delicious. There's also a Shinto shrine where people can pray for good health and long life, and it's said if you wash a particular statue of Buddha with your own towel that part of your body will be healed. I love the tag line for Sugamo: they bill themselves as the toshiyori no Harajuku, or Harajuku for older people.

Red underwear is considered lucky by older Japanese.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Japan and England

Being an American in Japan has been a good opportunity to learn more about...England. Yes, Japan has always had a special affinity for the British Isles, and some aspects of Japan that can seem strange to us Yanks actually come from Great Britain. When I got to Japan I wondered at the way some trains were called nobori ("climbing") while others were kudari ("descending"), and after a while I figured out that it referred to whether the train was going in the direction of Tokyo or not, which was likely borrowed from England back in the day. Some other U.K.-derived cultural elements include a British-style teatime in the afternoon and the idea of eating "Christmas cake" during the holidays. In addition to driving on the left-hand side of the road, the Japanese have imported words like "bonnet" (the hood of a car) and "saloon" (for a sedan), plus other terms like dustbox and, er, water closet (W.C.). Like the British, the Japanese use the word "pants" to mean underwear, which of course comes through as pantsu in anime. This can be potentially embarrassing for people who use the word a general term for trousers.

A British train table from 1850, showing "up" and "down" trains just like in Japan.

Learning to "Think" in Japanese

I try to promote study of Japanese on J-List because it's been such a satisfying journey for me. One challenge for anyone learning a new language is the elusive goal of "thinking" in that language, of having ideas and expressing emotions without your brain using its native tongue first and converting those thoughts into the target language. One feature of the Japanese people is that they usually dislike making errors, and many of my students would spent a few seconds "pre-caching" what they were going to say before speaking, which can really drag the conversation down. In my own case, I found wrapping my brain around Japanese grammar difficult at first, until I learned to treat sentences like mathematical equations, memorizing, say, watashi wa ko-hi ga suki desu (as for coffee, I like it), then practicing swapping out the subject and object until I could use that one sentence type to express a lot of ideas without thinking about it. I never fretted about making mistakes in front of others, and I'm sure the Japanese members of the Japan-America Friendship Club at SDSU were quite entertained by me.

Thinking in a foreign language is really not as difficult as it seems at first.

Ohaguro: Black Teeth in Japan

Perhaps it's because I come from a country without a very long history, but I really love walking in old places like Kyoto, strolling down streets that have been used for 1500 years or more. You can almost see the beautiful women of the Edo Period and earlier, wearing elegant kimono and flashing a smile complete with black teeth. Black teeth? Yes, it's true: for much of Japan's history women had a strange custom of applying black makeup to the teeth to stain them. Called ohaguro, the custom was associated with married women and was done because black things were considered especially beautiful. Based on archeological evidence from Japanese burial mounds historians know that the practice of dying teeth existed in prehistoric times, and it shows up in the famous Tale of Genji and the ukiyoe art of the Edo Period. If you think it sounds a little terrifying, you're not alone: there's a classic Japanese ghost story about a specter (yokai) called Ohaguro-bettari, who haunts old shrines while wearing a bridal kimono and smiling with a mouth full of blackened teeth. Kowai! (Scary!)

In days of old, married women would paint their teeth black.