Friday, September 25, 2009

Public Urination and Other Surprises in Japan

Having lived in Japan since the first Bush presidency, I generally feel like I've gotten used to the place..and yet, the country has brought me many moments of confusion over the years. Like the first time I saw a Japanese salaryman wearing an expertly tailored suit riding a bicycle whole holding an umbrella with one hand, which is something you just don't see back home. Or that first time eating ikizukuri, which is sashimi that's so fresh, it was cut off while the fish was still alive and moving. Outside of Japanese cities it's quite common for men to relieve themselves wherever it suits them, and it's such a problem you can see signs that say "It is forbidden to urinate here" in front of people's houses, which was certainly a surprise to see. Another thing that made me do a double-take was the common practice of shops stacking their merchandise out in front of the shop, where anyone could presumably make off with it...although apparently no one does. The other day I went to the local supermarket to pick up some food items my wife needed, and I noticed a cute girl handing out samples in one aisle, so I went over. The samples were little cups of beer, which seemed an odd thing to be giving away freely to customers who were going to be driving home in their cars soon. I'm pretty sure they don't do that in the U.S.

Living in Japan means not being surprised at seeing this all the time.

Awesome Anime Figures @ J-List

Remember, J-List sells really cute pre-painted anime figures direct from Japan, including popular lines like Nendoroid and Figma and Revoltech, as well as incredibly detailed scale versions of your favorite anime characters recreated in PVC. Since the Japanese are nothing if not creative, there's a category of anime figure called "cast off" featuring clothes that can be, well, cast off, allowing you to display the figure any way you like. Click here to browse all the gorgeous anime figures we have in stock, or here to see the top 50 figures over the past week.
J-List will be attending the first-annual Long Beach Comic Con, a new convention hend Oct 2-4 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!

Dams, Damn Dams and the Politicians Who Cancel Them

It seems that whenever there's a dust-up about pork-barrel construction projects in Japan, my home prefecture of Gunma is at the center of the controversy. It happened a couple years ago when the then-mayor of our city (who happened to live next door to us) decided that what we needed was a shiny new Ferris Wheel -- despite the fact that we already have a perfectly good one -- and naturally he and his friends who also happened to own construction companies would profit from this new building project. This example of wasteful public works projects became national news, and we had camera crews at our house trying to ambush the mayor and interview him about the project, which was eventually cancelled. One of the issues in the recent election in which the former opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) ousted the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was unnecessary public spending, and the fight centered around the Yamba Dam Project. For the past 57 years the dam has been planned, and an entire generation of Japanese living in the villages that were to be submerged had been making preparations to relocate...although the new government has declared that the project would be ended, which is causing confusion and anger in the affected areas. Although the DPJ is acting like the decision to cancel the $9.9 billion project was made purely for fiscal reasons, there's little doubt politics are playing a role as well, since the dam just happens to be located in the district overseen by former Prime Ministers Obuchi and Yasuda, politicians who were arch rivals of the new administration.

Tthe Yamba Dam is a big point of debate in Japan today. This village is one of the proposed relocation sites.

Tokaido, the "Route 66" of Japan

When you take the train from Tokyo to Kyoto, the train line you use is the Tokaido Line. I've always liked this name because it recalls the original Tokaido ("eastern sea road"), the historic highway between Japan's official capitol of Kyoto and Edo, the seat of the Shogun's government. The official beginning of the Tokaido road (or end, depending on which way you're traveling) is in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, which is an interesting place to visit, filled with shops to explore and busy merchants selling wares. Happily, the Tokaido was an important subject for popular culture during the Edo Period, and there's an extensive amount of information detailing what travel was like on the "Route 66" of old Japan, including many ukiyoe woodblock paintings for us to enjoy now.

When you visit Kyoto on the Tokaido Line, you're traveling over history.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Re-Learning English Pronunciation

One odd thing about learning Japanese is getting used to revised versions of words from your native language. The Japanese import a lot of words from English, but they aren't always rendered with 100% phonetic accuracy due to limitations of the katakana sound system. Also, the longer a word has been in use, the more it will likely have changed into some unrecognizable form, like ramune, the famous lemon-lime drink which got its name from lemonade. The Japanese often use English words for happy, positive concepts, and one word they like is "healthy"...however since it's pronounced herushii, it took quite a while for my brain to get used to it. Another phrase that sounded weird at first is "thank you," pronounced san kyu, or the word "sexy," rendered as sekushii. A fairly common way to say "don't worry about it" is don-mai (DOHN-mai), which started out as "don't mind" back in the Showa Period, and if you want to surprise a Japanese person, try using this word with them. The most elementary English word of them all, the definite article "the," is yet another example of pronunciation that must be re-learned, and making one's brain accept za as correct was not easy. Of course, sometimes these "English" words sound strange because they're not English at all, like the word "theme" which comes out like teh-mah in Japanese, since it was imported from German (thema).

"Za Sale" is an advertising word thrown around a lot in Japan.

Japan and Foreigners

One interesting aspect of the Japanese is how concerned they are with how they appear to foreigners, especially from the U.S. and Europe. The other day I caught a show called "Cool Japan" which essentially consisted of a circle of gaijin from countries like America, Canada, Germany and China discussing how they perceived certain aspects of Japanese culture, in this case the extreme fashions that can be seen in Shibuya and Harajuku. During the show, a camera crew followed a man from Sweden and a woman from Russia as they walked around the more fashionable parts of Tokyo, giving their impressions of what they saw. "Why are you dressed up like this?" the woman asked a particularly interesting gyaru with overly tanned skin and blonde-dyed hair. "It's because I wanted to stand out and not be like everyone else," the girl replied, apparently oblivious to the fact that everyone around her was dressed in a similarly unique way. Later the foreigners learned about Tokyo's "Deco Boom" in which just about everything you can think of, from fingernails to cell phones to H1N1 health masks, are covered with lavish decorations. The show is interesting because it brings a lot of cross-understanding between foreigners and Japanese, and it also says a lot about how Japan wants to be viewed by the rest of the world (i.e. kakko ii, meaning cool or good style).

How does Shibuya fashion culture look to you? Japan wants to know.

Japanese Superstitions and Mt. Fear

Although the Japanese are a very level-headed people who generally have their feet firmly planted on the ground, they can also be quite superstitious. I'll regularly encounter odd (to me) Japanese beliefs in my daily life, like the other day when my daughter found a spider in her room and my wife warned us not to kill it because it was night, and it's bad luck to kill a spider at night. Or when someone sticks their chopsticks into their rice accidentally. When I planned my trip to Aomori Prefecture, I was going to take my son to both the eastern Tsugaru Peninsula, so famous in enka songs, and the facing Shimokita Peninsula, location of Mt. Osore-zan, a terrifying volcanic place with a name that literally means Mt. Fear. This unearthly spot has been revered for more than 1000 years, a place where blind shamen tell people's fortunes and women leave offerings at a very solemn shrine to babies miscarried before they could be born. When my mother-in-law heard I was planning to go, she got really animated and made me promise not to, so fearful was she that I would bring home some evil spirit or something. I'd been to the place before and I wanted to see Hirosaki with my son too, so we opted to go there and not bother with Mt. Fear.

Osore-zan is the gateway to hell in Japan, or something like that.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Zettai Ryoiki T-Shirts @ J-List

For more than a decade, J-List has sold a line of popular T-shirts with wacky anime and kanji designs, like our best-selling "Now Accepting Applications for a Japanese Girlfriend" T-shirt, or the currently popular Haruhi "No Normal Humans" design. Today we're posting a new T-shirt that's a tribute to one of the most popular genres in anime these days, called zettai ryoiki or "the Absolute Zone," which is the 3-cm space between the top of a girl's stockings and where her skirt begins. That little patch of visible skin is an important part of the design of certain anime characters, from Rin Tosaka in Fate/Stay Night to Taiga in Toradora! and if you're a fan of this unique aesthetic design element, we invite you to check out our new T-shirt!

Silver Week

Japan is currently enjoying a second "Golden Week" holiday this year, naturally called "Silver Week," thanks to three holidays -- Respect for the Aged Day, the Autumnal Equinox and a free-floating holiday that kicks in whenever holidays appear on either side of a normal work day -- arriving in the same week. It's a rare treat for the country that has many hoping the extra leisure time will deliver an economic shot in the arm for hotels and similar industries. So far, many Japanese do seem to be taking advantage of the opportunity to get some quality relaxing time in, which in the Tokyo area means the usual packed roads and trains as everyone tries to leave then return at the same time. Since today is Respect for the Aged Day, my kids are going to make a special dinner for Ojiichan and Obaachan (grandfather and grandmother).

Yay -- another Golden Week-style traffic jam out, then back, into Tokyo.

The Art of Apologizing in Japan

One thing about Japan: they are really are good at apologizing and showing reflection when they've done something wrong. When Alico Japan accidentally leaked sensitive customer data, they ran TV ads during prime time apologizing directly to their customers in the deepest possible way. Similarly, a big part of the reason SMAP member Kusanagi was able to return to work after his arrest for public nudity was that he showed true reflection to his fans over the embarrassment he'd caused everyone. But when actress/singer Noriko Sakai was released from prison last week after her arrest for stimulant use, she was criticized because she didn't look like she was truly sorry for her crimes, appearing in public wearing fashionable clothes and expertly-applied make-up rather than fitting the image of a repentant star who had made a mistake that everyone expected. "She's an actress, performing in a drama about a women who was arrested," one commentator said, "I thought she was going to sing for us, not issue a public apology." I'm a big fan of Noripi and hope she gets back on her feet after this unpleasantness.

Apologizing is a highly developed art form in Japan.

RIP Crayon Shinchan Creator Yoshito Usui

Tragedy has struck the manga world with the sad loss of Yoshito Usui, who died after falling a terrifying 300 feet off a cliff while hiking in the mountains in my home prefecture of Gunma. Usui is the creator of Crayon Shin-chan, the spirited kindergartner who is often called the Bart Simpson of Japan, and the manga-ka created comics featuring his trademark characters every month since 1990. Combining sharp-witted humor and interesting social commentary from the point-of-view of a five-year-old, Crayon Shin-chan won fans all over the world, from India and China to Spain and the Netherlands as well as the U.S. While I've enjoyed reading the series over the years, Crayon Shin-chan can be a challenge for parents, since kids love to copy his bad behavior, exposing their butts and calling their mothers by their first names, or asking embarrassing questions like, "Why does the box of tissues in Mom and Dad's room run out faster than in any other room in the house?" Mr. Usui's cause of death is not yet known. Although there was no suicide note or any direct evidence to believe the artist wanted to die, some of the themes in his manga had been causing some to wonder about his mental state, for example a story he drew in 2007 in which the fiancee of the teacher Ume Matsuzaka was killed in a terrorist act while overseas, forcing Matsuzaka to contemplate suicide herself.

The creator of Crayon Shin-chan will be missed by his many fans.