Friday, October 16, 2009

Peter's Tips on Learning Japanese

At J-List, we like to encourage interest in learning Japanese, since it's such a rewarding language to study whether you're just trying to master hiragana and katakana or are going for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test this December. People are all different, and it's no surprise that we learn in different ways. In general, my advice is to find what "floats your boat," in other words sample a lot of different aspects of Japan to see what aspect of the country you're interested in, be it history, traditional culture and martial arts, anime and popular culture or what have you. Another bit of advice I can offer is to be "8x" about studying Japanese, by which I mean try several approaches at once to see what works for you rather than just trying one thing. (I translated JPOP songs for friends while reading manga and watching anime, then eventually got interested in Japanese literature.) Another thing you might try is writing a diary in Japanese, which gives you an excuse to practice writing (always a good idea), and you can see how far you've progressed by reading your old diary entries later. I did this for several years, although I had to give it up when I started J-List, which (as Apu from the Simpsons says) puts great demands on my time. Although in a way, I never stopped writing a diary about my life in Japan at all -- you're reading it right now.

An artist's conception of what keeping a diary in Japan is like.

Mixed Bathing in Japan

Japan has had a culture of bathing in public baths and natural volcanic hot springs for centuries, and I've really become an aficionado of this great aspect of the country since my arrival in 1991. Everywhere I drive, I've got my "bath kit" in the car with me, so I can stop at any roadside hot springs and get clean. One of the more famous images of Japan is male-female "mixed bathing" (called kon'yoku), although I have some bad news for would be mixed bathers -- it's almost impossible to find these baths anymore. As Japanese society has evolved to become more Western, the idea of men and women bathing together has faded, and in all my journeying I only managed to find one official mixed bath. This doesn't mean that men bathing in a public bath need go without females around them, however. For some odd reason, it's perfectly normal for the cleaning lady in these baths to enter when the men are washing themselves, to tidy the buckets or check the temperature of the water, and no one thinks anything of it here.

Sadly, mixed bathing is a lost art in Japan outside of anime comic-relief stories.

Of S'Mores and Curry and "Cultural Buttons"

It's interesting how each of us has a set of special "cultural buttons" which bring up different images when pressed. As an American, when I think of going camping my brain conjures a mental image of sitting around a campfire and eating S'mores, which are delicious sandwiches made with two graham crackers, Hershey's chocolate and a marshmallow you've just toasted over the fire. But when the Japanese think of camping, the first on their mind is...making curry? Yes, the Japanese idea of "roughing it" involves peeling potatoes, washing pots and building a fire so they can boil up some first-rate curry rice, complete with a special kind of rice cooker for steaming rice over a flame called a hango. Making curry rice in the great outdoors requires a lot of cooperation from different members of a group, and when it all comes together it's not only a delicious meal, but it brings people together. When my daughter was doing Girl Scouts, the scout leader used to bring ingredients so the girls could eat S'mores just like they do in America. But since there are no graham crackers here in Japan, she brought Saltines, which isn't the same thing at all...

When the Japanese think of camping, they think of a big pot of steaming curry.

Fun Anime Snacks from J-List

J-List, of course, carries tons of fun anime toys and figures for you to browse, and we also stock many rare and wonderful snack items direct from Japan. So it makes sense for us to go out of our way to carry the best anime-themed snacks we can find for our customers, which we do . See some fun items, like the Lucky Star Cornet Cookies (which incidentally come in a flat gift-style box, so you can give them to others as gifts); the delicious traditional snack Konpeito, as seen in Spirited Away; the wonderful Sakuma Drops candy, from Grave of the Fireflies; and the delicious Milk Caramels from Morinaga, as seen in the Totoro sequel "Mei and the Kitten Bus" (which is only viewable at the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo). Why not browse our new Anime Snacks page, or check out the top 50 snack items this week?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Enigmatic "Returned Japanese"

I often write about how Japan is a homogeneous place in which 99% of the people consider themselves to be of the same genetic stock, despite the obvious variations in skin color, facial shape and body type among supposedly "pure" Japanese, who of course contain varying amounts of Mongolian, Korean, Ainu and other blood in their veins. This "myth of Japanese uniformity" may seem strange to Westerners, but in reality it's a useful social tool that the Japanese have used to create a happy society ostensibly free of discrimination, since almost everyone is "included" in the overall social group as an equal. (This is the theory, anyway.) No matter how far this happy social umbrella may be stretched, though, there are certain groups within Japan that it just can't cover, which include zainichi ("residing in Japan") Koreans and Chinese, who in many cases were born and raised here yet don't take Japanese citizenship for cultural reasons; Okinawans, who have a unique culture separate from Japan; the Ainu, the original residents of northern Japan; gaijin like me, living and doing various jobs here; and historically, burakumin, the "untouchables" who lived at the bottom of society.

Another group that doesn't fit perfectly into the neat Japanese social fiber are the kikoku shijo, a word which literally means "girl children who have returned to Japan from a foreign country" and refers to any Japanese (male or female) who has come back to Japan after living abroad for several years when they were younger. These "returned Japanese" have a unique status in society here, since they naturally can't be expected to fit in perfectly or write every kanji. Kikoku shijo people are supposedly "KY" -- a Japanese word meaning kuuki yomenai or "can't read the air," meaning that these Japanese from overseas have trouble understanding the subtleties of social interaction all around them. It's common for organizations to have special rules for these individuals, for example universities usually have separate entrance exams to allow a certain number of students who have lived abroad to enter. Anime is especially well populated with these "special" nihonjin, who often seem to be everything the Japanese themselves are not: tall with fiery Western features, fluent in foreign languages and given a free pass to act differently from everyone else. Some famous "returned Japanese" characters include Asuka Langley Soryu and Mari Illustrious Makinami (who may both also be haafu, a related trope as far as anime is concerned), and Kaede Kimura from Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, who always manages to flash her underwear then threaten to sue anyone who happened to see.

Anime is well populated with "returned Japanese." Which is your favorite?

Autumn, Beautiful Leaves and Kotatsu

Autumn is starting to make its presence known in Japan, with beautiful hues of red and orange and yellow starting to show on the trees. This is the season that makes me want to stop whatever I'm doing and go to Nikko, a collection of temples and a five-storied pagoda that are just about the single best sightseeing spot in the Kanto (Tokyo) area, especially when the leaves are just starting to turn. Fall is also time to break out the kotatsu, a low table with a blanket over it and an electric heater inside. During the colder months, everyone in the family will sit around the kotatsu with their legs stuffed inside, feeling warm and toasty while avoiding the waste of heating an entire room. The symbol of a kotatsu with a bowl of mikan oranges on when it's cold outside it is a great image of the country.

Autumn is my favorite season to enjoy the beauty of Japan.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Japan, Bacteria-Resistant Nation

I happened to see that the venerable Ticonderoga Pencil Company had brought out a line of pencils that are "bacteria resistant" thanks to a special coating on the pencils's surface called MicroBan™. This kind of sales gimmick is everywhere in Japan, a country where germs are so worrisome to people that it's not rare to see someone going about their day wearing a surgical-style health mask (without or without Hello Kitty on it), even before the current H1N1 problem. The Japanese seem particularly sensitive to the thought that germs might be getting on themselves or their loved ones, and many products are promoted as being anti-bacterial, including the desks my kids study at, the sheets and pillows we use, and just about every household appliance you can think of. They even rolled out special "bacteria resistent" hand railings for escalators at major train stations in Tokyo recently.

This hand railing at Ueno Station advertises itself as "bacteria-resistant."

Duality with Japanese Language

One fact about learning Japanese I've written about before is the odd "duality" your brain starts to perceive. In general, most kanji have two pronunciations, a Chinese reading roughly based on the original Chinese word, and a Japanese reading which has been shoe-horned in to fit that character's meaning over the years, and knowing which to use can be a challenge. The word "cold" in French is froid, and it's used exactly the same way as we use it in English, but this convenient 1:1 translation doesn't always work in Japanese, where they have separate words for coldness in the air (samui) and coldness to the touch (tsumetai). Another example of a simple concept becoming more complex is "sister," which is translatable as oneesan for an older sister and imoto for younger sister. There are quite a few English words that get split into multiple versions, too. The device used to smooth out wrinkles in clothes is an airon (iron) but the thing you hit a golf ball with is an aian, a completely different word as far as the Japanese are concerned. If you're thirsty, you can drink drink water from a gurasu (glass) while looking through the garasu of the window -- those two words have also become separate concepts. Honestly, remembering which word to use can actually make your brain tired at the end of the day.

Which is it? I'm not sure! Help me! (It's a gurasu, not a garasu.)

Dams, Damn Dams and the Politicians Who Cancel Them, Part II

The changes in Japan's political world continue, as the Democratic Party of Japan works to implement its "Manifesto" of campaign promises. Last week it was announced that Seiji Maehara, the minister of land, infrastructure, and tourism, had frozen 48 out of 56 dam projects that were under way in Japan, refusing to fund any contracts this fiscal year. The government seems to be targeting public works projects as a way of freeing up tax money to make good on its promise of paying families a monthly allowance of $250 per child in the hopes of raising the nation's birthrate. Honestly, I'm kind of torn on some of these changes. On the one hand, wasteful public spending is a huge problem in Japan, a country positively addicted to construction as a way of propping up employment, and building projects that provide questionable public benefit should be eliminated. On the other hand, cutting projects already started is wasteful too, and will increase unemployment in the construction sector, which is already being pummeled. My initial reaction to the cancellation announcement was, "How the heck could Japan have thought it needed 56 more dams at this point in its development?" although with 2800 currently operating dams, Japan has a lot less than the 75,000 in the U.S. Incidentally, there are "dam otaku" in Japan who love to take pictures of their favorite multiple-arch reverse-pump turbine gravity dams for their scrapbook. Those Japanese are so wacky!

The future of dam construction construction in Japan is looking cloudy.

Macross Ultimate Frontier on the PSP

Over the weekend I had some fun with my copy of Macross Ultimate Frontier, a superb game for the Sony PSP that lets you re-live all the battles of the entire Macross series, from the 1982 original series and epic "Do you remember love?" 1984 movie to all the later series, all the way up to the most recent Macross Frontier. We're happy that the PSP and DS have turned into such great platforms for anime fans to enjoy games direct from Japan. Another popular title is the Miku Hatsune Project DIVA in which you must do fun things like teach Miku to dance and sing and outfit a virtual room for her. You also get to enjoy many shots of her her legendary shimapan. Why not take a moment to browse all the cool PSP and Nintendo DS games from Japan we have in stock?