Friday, October 30, 2009

Kawaii Crafts from Japan

We like to call J-List "a wonderful toybox of things from Japan," and we do have an awful lot of interesting items. The other day I was browsing our database to see what products were popular in different countries. For example, we sell a huge number of bento boxes and accessories to customers in France, since bento culture is very big there. I browsed to see what customers in Italy liked to buy, and was surprised to see that the #1 products were the Mousse-chan "Paper Clay" molds, the Let's Make an Eraser in Microwave craft sets and beautiful foldable Origami paper. No matter where you are in the world, J-List has some cool items from Japan for you. Why not browse J-List for these and other fun items from Japan now?

And one last time: this weekend is your last chance to take advantage of our J-List special sale, in which we give you $5 back for every $100 spent. This is frankly a great time to start your Christmas shopping, grabbing cool toys and Totoro products and snacks and Domo-kun T-shirts. Thanks!

Arimasu and Imasu and Japanese Grammer

I often talk about the various unique aspects of Japanese, in part because I just think languages are cool, but also in the hopes of helping anyone who's planning on learning Japanese in the future. One early aspect of Japanese grammar that proves challenging for students are the verbs imasu and arimasu, which both mean "to exist [in a place]." The catch is that imasu ("ee-mahs") is used for animate objects, anything that's alive ike a person or animal, and arimasu ("ah-ree-mahs") is for any inanimate object. A good example sentence might be: Watashi wa Tokyo ni imasu ga, ie wa Osaka ni arimasu, which means "I am in Tokyo, but my house is in Osaka." I remember tormenting my teacher with questions about these verbs, asking which I should use if referring to an android that was indistinguishable from a human, or an undead zombie, or a Venus Fly Trap, as my brain sought to define the boundaries of the new concepts. When I came to Japan I happened to meet a small child who referred to cars driving down the road with imasu instead of the correct arimasu (since they're not alive, even though they move). I felt a strange kinship with her, since I might have made the same error myself.

Strictly speaking, since Doraemon is a "robot of cat type" is should use arimasu, right?

Poupeegirl, an Open Minded Fashion Community

Ever since the Internet showed up, our lives have been greatly enriched by companies offering amazing services, like YouTube or Skype or Facebook or Twitter. These companies have become popular here in Japan, too, and it's largely taken for granted that the really good web-related ideas will all come from America and Europe, not from inside Japan itself. Oh, Japan certainly has its share of unique sites, such as Pixiv for art sharing, Mixi for social networking and Nico Video for watching Miku Hatsune sing about leeks for hour on end. Don't expect these services to change the world, though: almost without exception, these sites are difficult to use from outside Japan, requiring you to navigate through Japanese-language registration pages in order to access the content. Which is why online fashion community Poupeegirl, where girls create a virtual avatar then buy cute dresses for her, is a breath of fresh air, since they're happy to have users from around the world.

The Poupeegirl online fashion community is a rarity in Japan, happy to have visitors from the outside world.


Gasshuku: Training Camp Stories in Anime

When you watch anime, you open yourself up to a culture that's very different from the West, and it's not uncommon to encounter an idea or two that can be hard to understand, even if you have subtitles to read. Concepts like senpai (an upperclassman in a school or senior in an organization) and kohai (the opposite) were strange to me, as were "cram schools" where students memorized information to be regurgitated on a college entrance exam a few years hence. Another concept that took me a while to figure out was gasshuku (translatable as "training camp"), essentially when members of a club or sports team spend several nights at a separate location so they can practice their sport or activity for hours on end without interruption, as everyone in the group polishes their kiai ("fighting spirit") and generally get energized to do well. It's yet another concrete example of Japan being a very group-oriented place, and an interesting lesson in Japanese culture for us, on the outside looking in.

Training camp side-stories are common in anime, and K-On! manages to have two of them.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Things You Say Only In Japan

There are some things you say when you live in Japan that you'd certainly never utter back home. For example, when you give someone something it's common to be self-effacing and say, "Please accept this boring gift" as you hand it to them, something you'd never do in English. When introducing yourself in Japan, most people specify their "hobby" (in Japanese, shumi), and statements like "My hobby is playing the piano" are common here even though it sounds a little weird. Asking a person's blood type then having an in-depth conversation about it is odd, as is being reminded to "turn off the carpet" before going to bed, referring to the electric "hot carpet" heater some homes have in Japan. When a member of the J-List staff goes home for the day, I'll usually tell them ki o tsukete, which literally means "be careful," but this goodbye greeting would sound strange if translated into English. Then there's, "At what age did you stop taking baths with your parents?" In Japan, baths are made extra large, and parents will generally take their baths with their kids up to a certain age. It's a wholesome time for parent-child communication which the Japanese call "skinship," and something I like a lot about Japan. A common joke in anime is a character who's embarrassed when his friends find out that he was taking baths with his mother well into junior high school.

A "hot carpet" is an electric carpet that you sit on to keep warm.

The YouTube Method of Learning English?

There are many approaches to learning language, including the Grammar-Translation Method, which involves formal learning and lots of translation, the Communicative Method, focusing on communicating with others, and the Natural Approach, which tries to imitate how children learn, e.g. starting with listening comprehension and physical feedback rather than speaking. I learned about these in Linguistics class back at SDSU, but there are a few unofficial ways to learn, like the Social Feedback Method, whereby you do whatever it takes to get cute girls to talk with you. My daughter has started watching YouTube, using the popular video service to find her favorite American TV shows like Hannah Montana and Wizards of Waverly Place, and an interesting thing has happened: she's started using English all the time at home, including American slang that amuses her. Has she discovered an effective new way to learn a language -- the YouTube Method? I wonder if, decades or centuries from now, we'll have identified any changes in the flow of human language through Internet-based services like YouTube or Twitter.

My daughter seems to have stumbled on a new way to learn English.

Keeping Positive in Japan

I once had a friend with an old car that leaked oil, so that whenever he wanted to drive somewhere he had to add some to make sure he didn't burn his engine out. But rather than be depressed about his automotive problems -- or get his car fixed -- he chose to take a positive view of his cool car with its "self-changing oil." This impressed me, and I realized at that young age that each of us has the ability to choose whether we want to be positive or negative about what we face in life. Sadly, it's common to see people in Japan being very negative about things, and while this is to be expected in a recession that's seen Japan's GDP drop an alarming 13%, something not seen since the "oil shocks" of the 1970s, it's a trend I hope can be reversed. Seen from the Japanese point of view, Americans are very optimistic, and that positive spirit was immensely important to Japan in the aftermath of World War II. One of my favorite Japanese words is mae-muki (mah-eh moo-ki), which literally means "forward-facing," and I hope to see some positive forward-facing attitudes in Japan in the future.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Wacky Things from Japan

J-List loves to bring you unexpected things from Japan, which we've come to call Wacky Things from Japan™, and any day we can surprise you with something cute or interresting is a good day in our book. From stamps that allow you to express your current emotion to fun phone straps to cute bento products while smile at you and a rather strange traditional noise-maker brough out at parties, there's always something cool to find at J-List!

The World of Food in Japan

When I came to Japan, I naturally expected to find foods like ramen, udon, tempura and sushi, but when I got here I was really bowled over by the amazing variety of culinary delights that awaited me. In addition to the major Japanese dishes everyone's familiar with, I discovered many delicacies I had no idea existed, from varieties of donburi (food served over a large bowl of steamed rice) to the best seafood I'd ever eaten to amazing regional foods that are associated with different parts of Japan. There were many foods from around the world, too, including Chinese-derived dishes like gyoza and Indian curry with that dreamy naan bread, which the Japanese eat as often as Americans eat Italian. The Japanese are very good at importing ideas from the outside and making them into something new, and many foods served in "Western" restaurants are still uniquely Japanese. One of my favorite such foods is omurice, or a delicious omlette served over chicken fried rice. It's really good with a demi-glace sauce on it, or if you like, with a heart drawn in ketchup. If you're interesated in learning more about Japanese food, J-List sells some fun items, including our Traditional Food Drops with famous flavors from different parts of the country, and many awesome cookbooks.

Wax samples of omurice in a restaurant window. Yes, this blog post is making me hungry.

What I Learned By Not Going to Hakodate

Over the summer I had a lot of fun taking my son to Hakodate, the city on the southern tip of Hokkaido famous for its fresh fish and beautiful night view. I actually had an opportunity to visit the city much earlier, back when I was studying Japanese in university. It was an exchange program that the city was putting on to give a group of college students the chance to come to Hakodate for free, but to get into the program I had to pass an interview process. I'd studied Japanese for two years at that point, and thanks to learning with manga and translating Japanese songs I could speak the language pretty well, but that didn't mean I'd internalized the values of the Japanese at all, and the interviewer could sense this, I think. During the interview I was asked to give a concrete example of steps I'd taken to get along with others in a group, but I couldn't come up with any, as I was very "going my way" at the time, meaning I was selfish and did things as I pleased. Not being picked for the program was a bitter pill for me back then, but it introduced me to some key concepts that would help me later on, including hansei (to reflect on yourself and your own faults rather than blaming others, which was my first reaction) and kenson (the imporantance of showing humility in social situations).

Yes, the subject of Japanese groups is an incredibly complex one, and maintaining harmony inside a group is something the Japanese seem to be especially good at. I've observed many different kinds of groups, from elderly ladies studying English together to company employees to university "circles" (a club at a university is always called a "circle" by the way), and there always seemed to be a kind of "invisible hand" at work when members interacted with each other, keeping people from giving opinions that might offend others, speaking in the passive voice ("it has been decided") rather than the active voice ("he decided it"), avoiding making a devision if even one member of the group is inconvenienced by it, and so on. If you want to learn a lot about Japan, check out Genshiken, a fascinating anime and manga that's essentially a slice-of-life story about the "Modern Visual Arts Club" at a university. When you can understand Genshiken, you can understand Japan.

The dynamics of maintaining harmony within a group can be very complex.