Friday, October 23, 2009

A Short Hop to South Korea

This weekend my wife is in South Korea, where she'll eat delicious food, get a Korean massage and do some sightseeing on the island of Cheju with a friend. The Korean Peninsula is just a 90 minute Taepodong missile flight hop from Narita to Seoul -- the bus trip to the airport from Gunma actually takes longer -- and many Japanese travel there to sample the exotic culture and shop for bargains, or perhaps visit a place from their favorite Korean drama. The past ten years have really been a cultural renaissance for the two countries, thanks to Korea ending an official ban on all forms of Japanese culture including comics, music and animation, and there's a lot more exchange of popular culture across the Sea of Japan these days. Quite a few Korean television stars and professional athletes are household names in Japan, and when hot K-Pop boy bands like Touhou Shinki arrive at Narita Airport, there are hundreds of screaming fans waiting for them. At J-List we're firm believers in the concept of "World Peace through Shared Popular Culture," so we approve of this free sharing of ideas very much.

South Korea is a popular destination for Japanese tourists.

Anime Solved: It's All About the Emotions

There are many reasons that Japanese animation has grown popular in nearly every corner of the world, including the uniqueness of the characters, the bold stories in which people actually change and fall in love and die, and a willingness to tackle a wide range of issues that are important to viewers, even if they might be on the silly side. There's also the built-in kakko ii (coolness) factor that anime has going for it, since it comes from a distant foreign land. (Hmm, that might explain why Japanese beer-drinkers will choose Budweiser while I'll always order a to think on that one a bit more.) Another reason anime is so enduring might be the way the best shows channel strong emotions to viewers. And not just the sappy boy-meets-girl-and-they-kiss-under-the-sakura-tree kind, either: often the themes can be bitter and sad and all the more exhilarating because of that. In the show Hatsukoi Limited, there are three boys who've gotten their hearts broken when the girls they liked didn't choose them, so they decide to take a trip to "find themselves." Frustrated by his one-sided love for Nao Chikura, a girl who's in love with a senpai who painted her favorite picture, Hiroyuki shouts: "I can't forget Chikura-san! Her smile is such a wonderful thing, but I can't win her love the way I am now...I can't go back until I find a way to become worthy of her!" The frustration and sadness -- called setsunai in Japanese, if you want to know -- becomes the most interesting aspect of the show.

At least, that's me. What do you get out of your favorite emotional anime? If we're getting some kind of emotional high from shows like Clannad, does it mean something has changed in our meatspace lives compared with the old days?

In the end, the attraction of anime might be the emotions it summons up inside you.

Perceptions of Japan through Green Tea Ice Cream

Although the Japanese have developed quite a taste for coffee in recent years, green tea is still very popular here, and Japan is known for consuming some pretty interesting green tea products, including matcha ice cream. I had a friend in America who once asked me, "Do the Japanese have any flavors of ice cream other than green tea?" which I thought was a very telling question. Of course the answer is yes: with a few rare exceptions like a town that's trying to declare itself the wasabi ice cream capital of the world, the ice cream eaten in Japan is exactly the same as what you're used to, but since the image of Japanese people eating vanilla ice cream isn't all that interesting, this information isn't communicated by the media or all the "look what those crazy Japanese are doing this week" blog posts out there, and so our view of Japan is shifted towards the bizarre. The way we perceive crime in other countries is affected by this phenomenon of selective information, too. There's a show called World's Greatest TV which highlights various television from around the world, and they have a segment about crimes that happened to be caught on video. Due to the video sources mostly coming from U.S., America is overrepresented in this show, and Japanese viewers who see crime after crime might get a negative view of the U.S. despite the fact that the video was only selected on its entertainment value. Bottom line, the next time you see sensational news from somewhere in the world, try to get more information before forming an opinion, if you can.

Japanese Calendar, J-List Sale Update

Japan is a very seasonal place, where different things done in each part of the year. Right it's "calendar season," the time to pick the awesome calendars you'd like to spend 2010 with. Japanese calendars are beautifully printed, with large, glossy page. While we've got a huge selection of popular anime calendars, we always make it a point to pick a wide range of calendars to offer, including gorgeous photo calendars of Japan in all seasons, calligraphy and art calendars, beautiful idols wearing kimono, plus the always popular Lucky Cat calendar offering. Click this link to browse all calendars, or here to see the top 50 calendars this week. (Also, we've got an HD review of the Totoro and other calendars up on YouTube if you like.)

Just a reminder that we're having a "J-List Birthday Sale" around here this month, giving you a gift certificate worth $5 for every $100 you spend on the site this month, which gives you a nice excuse to add another few boxes of Pocky or bento items to your cart if you're near the next $100 level. It's also a great time to start your holiday shopping since J-List is a wonderful place to find rare and fun items to make the Japan-obsessed person on your list really happy this year.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Fun with Hello Kitty

J-List sells rather a lot of Hello Kitty products from Japan, and it makes us happy to see how popular they are with our customers, from the bento boxes and accessories we stock, to the fun plush toys and even uniquely Japanese products like Shinto good luck charms featuring Japan's most kawaii kitty. We have a microwave rice cooker that lets you enjoy steamed white rice without the need to buy an electric rice cooker, training chopsticks for those still perfecting their chopstick skills, super Hello Kitty products for stress relief, and even a product for people who absolutely hate the famous Sanrio character. This year is Hello Kitty's 35th year as Japan's unofficial ambassador to the world, and we've got a huge selection of amazing items for you, including the two just-released Hello Kitty Anniversary Books. Click here to view all Hello Kitty items, and here to view the top 50 Kitty-chan products on the site this week.

Moero Downhill Night Download Now Shipping!

J-List loves to promote the PC dating-sim games from Japan (aka eroge), like the fantastic Deus Machina Demonbane, which we posted for preorder last time. Now, an update on the newest English-language game to be released, Moero Downhill Night. Unfortunately due to a production error, the game is currently being repressed, which will take another few weeks. Since so many people want to play this great Initial D-esque racing & dating simulator, we've got a great announcement: we've posted the game for download sales right now! So you have the option of ordering the package version (and waiting for it to be printed), buying the download version right now, or getting the special download + shrinkwrapped set! Click the graphic above to visit the game's official site and see the awesome CG racing scenes (created by the Initial D staff, incidentally)!

Are you involved with retail anime or related products? J-List operates a wholesale-only company in San Diego for making our wacky Japanese T-shirts, cool PC dating-sim games and other products available to retail shops, and would love to serve you. We've recently relaunched our wholesale website, so if you'd like to know more, please drop by either (PC games, manga and apparel) and (family-friendly apparel and games only).

Japan's Literary Celebration

This year is the 100th year of the birth of Osamu Dazai, one of the major Japanese writers of the 20th century, who created a fascinating body of work including short stories like Run, Mellos! and major novels such as The Setting Sun (the story of an aristocratic family in the aftermath of World War II) and the semi-autobiographical No Longer Human. Japan is a very literate country, and they've always had a tradition of raising their great writers and poets up for all to see. While only former presidents appear on U.S. currency (except for good old Ben Franklin), Japan has featured many of its writers on its money, including Souseki Natsume, writer of "I am a Cat" and other books, who was on the previous 1000 yen note; Inazo Nitobe, who first wrote about bushido for the West and who adorned the former 5000 yen note; and the current 2000 yen note, which features both female novelist and poet Ichiyo Higuchi and the famous Murasaki Shikibu, writer of The Tale of Genji.
Japan has a long tradition of celebrating its writers by putting their faces on money.

My Two Personalities (Japanese and English)

When a person learns a foreign language they actually develop a second personality, which takes over when they're speaking that language. In Japanese, I'm a very different person, so much so that I'm often surprised myself. Japanese people tend to be humble, and when I'm speaking the language I'm able to sincerely humility in ways that I couldn't be if I were speaking English, and yes, I do bow while speaking on the phone. My wife on the other hand is much more assertive in English than in Japanese, since English is just built that way -- you always say the subject of sentences and use "yes" or "no" to clearly indicate your opinion, unlike in Japanese where meanings are often more vague and nuanced. It's always enjoyable to observe how this "English personality" works in my kids when I take them to the U.S. In English, my daughter is cute and feminine since she usually plays with other girls in the States, but in Japanese, she's a pure tomboy, even using the male first person pronoun (boku) the one that girls should use (atashi).

Cultural Comparisons and Ninjas

It's funny how we're all wired to perceive things a certain way, depending on what culture we come from. When my daughter was younger, we took her to an eye doctor in the U.S. for some tests, and the doctor showed her some pictures and asked her to identify them. She wasn't able to answer properly, not because of some problem with her eyes, but because the pictures -- silhouettes of household objects -- looked strange to her since she'd grown up outside the U.S. When I went to see a kabuki play in Tokyo for the first time, I was confused by the story, and not just because of the archaic Japanese the actors were speaking. As the story progressed, men in black costumes would appear on stage and scurry around, moving props and background objects. To my eyes, they looked like classic ninja, ready to strike their enemies dead, yet for some reason the characters on stage ignored their presence and went on with the story. It turns out I was looking at kuroko, stage hands who manipulate objects during the performance but who are supposed to be ignored by the audience. These unique "invisible shadows" show up on other performance arts, too, especially bunraku, a play put on using highly detailed dolls that are manipulated by a puppet master who wears the kuoroko clothing, making him invisible to the audience.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Other Stuff: Costumes & Demonbane

Halloween is right around the corner, but there's still time for you to order an awesome complete cosplay set from J-List. We've got dozens of anime costumes to choose from, from Toradora! to Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni to Naruto and Bleach, and many fun accessories, too, including anime wigs that will make you feel like your favorite anime character. We also have popular cosplay magazines like CosMODE and Layers, which are filled with useful articles and reference photos for you to make your next cosplay extra special. Browse all anime costume products now!

J-List is extremely happy to announce that preorders for Deus Machina Demonbane is now available for preorder on our site. J-List has long been a champion of PC dating-sim games from Japan, working to make them available in English to fans all over the world. It's a great day for fans of these unique games from Japan indeed, as the first game to be translated -- the awesome Demonbane -- can now be preordered. The game, which is in translation now, is one of the most awesome visual novels ever, and we're extremely happy to be able to offer it to you. Click here to view the official site for the game, or visit here to preorder the game from J-List. Be sure to check the NitroplusUSA blog to see when new content is added, too.

On the Lack of Lawsuits in Japan

The unceremonious ending of several major public works projects by the recently elected Democratic Party of Japan has been a big change in a country where projects historically are never cancelled once they've received an official blessing. The policy changes highlight another big cultural difference between Japan and the U.S., too: the lack of litigation as way of redressing issues between parties. While no one may be a fan of lawsuits, they do have their place in a free society, allowing individuals and groups to seek redress when they feel they've been wronged in some way, and if these changes were happening in the U.S., some legal challenges would certainly be filed. So far I've seen only one case of a Japanese company threatening legal action: Fuji Heavy Industries is demanding compensation from the government for agreeing to buy 62 Apache helicopters then actually only ordering ten of them.

Fuji Heavy Industries licensed the Apache from Boeing but only sold ten of them.

Yaeba, a "Charm Point" in Japan

During my time in Japan, I've been able to observe some of the more interesting traits of the females around me. Japanese girls in their teens or 20s are generally in touch with their "inner kawaii" and are capable of making a wide range of cute manga-like gestures and facial expressions without warning. Thanks to the grid-like organization of hiragana, it's easier to enter Japanese text with the number pad on a phone than it is in English, and on trains you can see females typing rapidly with their thumbs. Japanese females are extremely group-oriented creatures, and seem unable to go to the bathroom without bringing their friends with them, a social phenomenon called called tsureshon. Another interesting feature of Japanese females is the tendency of many of them to have crooked teeth, called yaeba (ya-eh-ba). Instead of being viewed as a negative, yaeba are often thought of as being cute, and many idols and singers use their imperfect teeth as a "charm point" to win more fans. This isn't universal, of course, and increasingly people here are getting crooked teeth fixed at a young age (both of my kids wore braces). These cute teeth show up in anime, too, represented two-dimensionally as a single fang protruding from the mouth.

Crooked teeth can be quite a "charm point" in Japan,

The Definition of "Macross Buzzkill"

Another tragedy struck the anime world, with the news that Kazuhiko Kato, the composer of the "Do You Remember Love?" song from the 1984 Macross movie, had committed suicide in a hotel in Karuizawa. The timing of the sad event was especially pointed for me, since I was in the middle of my "Weekend of Macross geekery," playing the new Macross Ultimate Frontier (quite frankly the best anime game ever made) on my PSP, and was playing just as the news popped up in my twitter feed. The announcement of Kato-san's death was sad for other fans as well, coming just hours before the Macross Crossover Concert, with five singers including Mari Iijima performing for fans. There are of course many cool songs in the anime world, but for me, "Do You Remember Love?" was the song, the very first one I heard in Japanese, which I vowed to understand someday. Mr. Kato had many achievements in his life including writing many beloved songs and forming a band called The Sadistic Mika, which became the first Japanese band to tour in Great Britain back in the 1970s.

Ai Oboete Imasu ka? composer Kazuhiko Kato will be missed.