Friday, November 13, 2009

Is Japan a "Green" Country?

Japan is often viewed as an "over-industrialized" country that doesn't value its natural environment enough, an image that Prime Minister Hatoyama is hoping to change as he meets with President Obama this weekend. While it's true the country can be somewhat rough on its natural resources, damming 98% of its rivers and actually encasing mountainsides in concrete on the off chance that there might be a landslide someday, there are other areas where Japan is surprisingly green. Dozens of household products are sold in full-sized bottles as well as inexpensive refill packs, so you can keep using the same bottle again and again. Gomi (trash) is meticulously separated in to different types, including "burnable," plastic, steel and aluminum cans, PET bottles, and glass, to encourage meaningful recycling. Japan is generally more energy efficient, too, thanks to the custom of only heating the room you're currently using rather than the whole house, and there's an entire class of smaller fuel-efficient "K" cars that come with tax benefits for owners. Recently my home prefecture of Gunma has come up with an innovative new way to get people to think about the environment, by creating a kawaii super-hero version of Gunma-chan, the official prefectural horse mascot. It's certainly designed to appeal to Japanese consumers.

There's a new super hero fighting for the environment in our prefecture.

Transliteration in Anime

Transliteration is the act of moving a word from one writing system to another, and by its very nature it's a difficult process since no two languages mesh up with each other perfectly. Having different approaches to the problem of how to write, say, a Chinese name in the Roman alphabet are why you may have grown up knowing the name Mao-Tse Tung then wondered why it's suddenly changed to Mao Zedong, or why Peking is also known as Beijing, or why Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi supposedly has 37 (!) possible English spellings for his name. J-List sells the fun Queen's Blade artbooks and figures, and when we first added the products to the site we had a problem: there was no "official" English spelling for the female character names. In order to decide which names to use as "canon," we had to look at the source code to the official Japanese site and read the filenames the website used.

There was more to the great "Minmei or Minmay?" fan-wars of the 1980s than we knew at the time

Takoyaki and Other Interesting Foods

There certainly are some rare and interesting foods to discover in Japan, once you dig beneath the surface a little. One interesting taste I was unaware of before coming here was okonomiyaki (oh-koh-no-mee YAH-kii, meaning "grilled whatever-you-like"), essentially a pancake of batter mixed with a variety of ingredients including cabbage, pork, seafood and so on, which is cooked on a grill then covered with mayonnaise and that heavenly sauce the Japanese call "sauce" then eaten like a pizza. Then there's taiyaki, a traditional Japanese snack that can be thought of as a pancake cooked in a fish-shaped mold with tasty beans inside. Perhaps the most mysterious Japanese food of all is takoyaki, the "octopus balls" which are essentially balls of batter containing a single piece of octopus meat (tako). A famous food from the Kansai area, I still have fond memories of lining up in the cold to buy the "soul food of Osaka" at a famous takoyaki stand called Otakoya in the Dotonbori region (near the Glico Man sign). Of course, you can sample Japan's most unique foods without even getting a passport, thanks to the traditional Japanese Food Drops that we sell on the site, and you can even make your own octopus balls thanks to the takoyaki cooker we got in stock today.

Takoyaki is just one of the many enjoyable foods in Japan. Will you try it?

2010 Calendar Update, and Other Site News

Today we made our final 2010 calendar order, which is always a challenge for us. Would we have enough of the popular calendars this year, like Hetalia or Toradora!, or this year's gorgeous Kara no Kyokai offering? What about the Queen's Blade calendar, which has already proven extremely popular with our customers, or the Space Battleship Yamato calendar, the most beautiful we've ever carried. How many calendars would Yuko Ogura fans want, and how about Gackt's gorgeous 2010 calendar, which gets more popular each year? Now is a great time to browse the calendar offerings J-List has for you, before the items you want are snapped up by someone else. You can browse all calendars using this link, or see the top 50 calendars this week here. They make outstanding gifts, too.

The improvements keep coming at J-List, as we polish our site for the coming Christmas season. In addition to the top-level Cosplay and Bento categories, with sub-categories that make it easier to find the products you want more easily, we now have our first-ever Hello Kitty & Sanrio category, where you fan easily browse all the fun Sanrio Japan products we stock. We've also new categories for our Manga and DVD pages, allowing you to browse some of the most popular genres more easily.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Hair Color in Anime and Japan

Anime is an interesting platform for creating stories that couldn't exist in the real world, and one tool animators use to subtly manipulate our perceptions of the characters we're watching is using extravagant hair colors that don't actually exist in nature. Black or brown can be considered the "basic" anime hair colors, usually used for "normal Japanese" characters, and male main characters often have dark hair and normal Japanese-style features, the better for male fans to identify with them. Blue hair on females is often used to create an air of purity or mystery or communion with nature, while white or grey hair can be a hint of hidden super powers. Red haired characters like Asuka from Evangelion or Yoko from Gurren Lagann are fiery demons who are quick to anger and capable of amazing feats of physical prowess. While people in Japan obviously don't have vibrant anime-esque colors in their hair, there is a surprising variety in the hair colors you do see here, both due to natural variation between individuals as well as the trend of people dyeing their hair to fit their personality. There are even some anime-like colors to be seen: for some reason, quite a few elderly Japanese find it cool to dye their hair interesting colors like blue or green, and a couple of months ago the principal of my son's school showed up with a light purple tint to his hair, which I'd never encountered before.

Though not quite anime, there's a surprising variation of hair colors in Japan..

Japan and the New Flu

Asami, the J-List employee who keeps us well stocked with amazing bento boxes and traditional Japanese items will be out for the rest of the week. The reason is that she caught the swine flu that's been going around, also known as the "new-type influenza virus" (as they call it in the Japanese media). Japan is doing its best to tackle the new flu outbreak, and fortunately the country is good at organizing itself . My wife was given a long list of steps she's supposed to take regarding H1N1, including taking the temperature of the kids each morning and keeping them home if they're above a certain point. If five or more students at a school are diagnosed with the flu, it's closed for a week to keep the outbreak from spreading -- that happened at my daughter's school last week, to her great joy. Between its culture of wearing health masks to keep germs from spreading to generally being focused on health, I am optimistic that Japan will come through the current crisis in good shape. Asami is fine and will be back at work next week.

Poor Bruce...his last name sounds very close to the Japanese word for "virus."

Some Gift Ideas from J-List

It's a great time to start thinking about your Holiday shopping, since purchases from Japan will need extra time to reach you. J-List is currently filled to the brim with products that would make awesome gifts for anyone on your list this year. Like the cute Hello Kitty Christmas items we've posted to the site today, which are fun for giving to little ones or keeping for yourself. If you love Japan's bento culture, we recommend you browse new-and-improved bento based -- personally, I love that deluxe Totoro Thermal Bento Set and would be happy to find it under my tree. Another great product to consider are the super-soft Totoro blankets that we carry each year, which we've just posted today. These are frankly the softest and best blankets you will ever find, guaranteed to become a treasure in your family.

Kotatsu: A Very Japanese Way to Keep Warm

Coming to Japan meant adjusting to many new things, from vending machines that accept the equivalent of $100 bills then bow to you in thanks after you make a purchase to learning that there's a time and a place to pop that little baby octopus in your mouth without thinking about it. I also had to learn to live in a much colder place than my former home of San Diego, California. Of course, just about every place in the world is colder in the winter than San Diego, with its warming Santa Ana winds that blow in from the desert just as the rest of the country drops below freezing, but I found keeping warm in Japan to be a real challenge. First, you need to learn to use a portable kerosene heater, inexplicably called a "stove,"and be at peace with freezing while refilling the kerosene for the heater using a hand pump that's guaranteed to overflow and spill kerosene all over your shoes. Wall-mounted air conditioning units -- called air-con -- also have heating modes, although I didn't figure this out for several months, since Americans don't expect heat to start flowing out of their air conditioners. Perhaps the best way to keep warm in Japan is to use a kotatsu (koh-TA-tsoo), basically a low wooden table with a blanket over it and a heater inside. Stick your legs under the blanket and you'll be as toasty as you please. In practice, this little warming table becomes the hub of the entire family, the place where everyone sits to eat and talk and watch TV, and I think they're great. Incidentally, we got the just-released miniature kotatsu toy from Re-Ment in stock today, which is compatible with all the other Re-Ment toys -- imagine the dioramas you can make with Figma and Revoltech toys!

Have you ever sat at a Japanese kotatsu table?

A kotatsu is a very Japanese way to keep warm in the winter.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Japan Baseball Update

Congratulations to the Yankees for winning the World Series. Japan is extremely proud that their own Hideki Matsui played such a spectacular role in the victory, writing himself into baseball history in the process. Matsui has been a popular player even in high school -- Japan takes its high school baseball seriously -- and he won headlines when all the teams that played against him in the Koshien Championship intentionally walked him because they feared what he would do if given the chance to hit. After being picked first in the draft by the Tokyo Giants, he had a great career here before fulfilling his dream and going to the Big Leagues in the U.S. One thing I like about Matsui is the way he's so humble and reserved, which is considered a very positive trait for a person here in Japan, something that can't really be said of all the players from Japan. Tokyo Giants fans had one heck of a week: not only did they get to watch Godzilla do well in the U.S., but their team defeated the Nippon Ham Fighters in the Japan Series two days later.

Congratulations to the New York Yankees and Hideki Matsui.

Watch Out for the Japanese Finger Enema

There are some experiences you just never expect to have in your life. Like walking down the street and having a stranger rush out of their house and give you an expensive bottle of shochu for no reason at all, other than that you're a gaijin. Or eating at a maid cafe where one of the menu items is to have the pretty maid slap you hard on the face. Or having someone come up behind you and push their fingers up your butt -- that's an experience I never wanted to have. This is a famous Japanese prank called kancho in which Japanese kids will sneak up behind someone and push their fingers into the buttocks area as hard as they can, essentially the local version of giving someone a "wedgie." Back when I used to teach small kids I had to be on my toes if I wanted to avoid having some third grader sneak up and zap me from behind. Japanese students use mechanical pencils a lot, and another common prank is releasing the pencil lead a millimeter or so then pressing it down against the desk, so that a small piece of pencil lead flies with great speed at the person you want to torment.

If you teach ESL to kids in Japan, grow eyes in the back of your head.

Men, Women and Japan

I've often written about how, on the surface at least, Japan can appear to be a "man's paradise" where males enjoy a special status that would be unthinkable in the U.S. or Europe. And in in a lot of ways, Japan does seem especially geared to fulfill the wishes of men, from those heavenly zettai ryoiki skirts to the immediate approval of a certain blue pill despite it taking 30 years for birth control pills to become legal to use here. Another example of Japan not being on the same plane of reality as the West was popular announcer Miku Natsume, who was forced to resign when a photograph of her holding a box of condoms was published (shock!). With the Democratic Party of Japan's rise to power, some changes are on the way. For example, the government is set to eliminate an automatic tax deduction for spouses, which is being done in part to encourage women who avoid working for tax reasons to get out and start being productive. Another change that's in the pipe is a law allowing married couples to keep their own last names rather than requiring that both parties take the same family name. Currently only Japanese who marry foreigners are able to keep separate last names -- my wife and I do this.

Poor Miku Natsume lost her job as a newscaster for being human.

Other Stuff: New Products & Site News

J-List has so many awesome products from Japan, it can be hard for me to decide what to write about in this corner. Of course J-List is filled to the brim with excellent 2010 anime, J-POP, popular idol, traditional photograph and other calendars. I also love the 2010 schedule books we've got for you, featuring cute characters like The Dog. The 2010 Studio Ghibli schedule books are a treat, too, designed by the company to bring much joy to everyone who uses them, and approved by Hayao Miyazaki himself. Totoro, Catbus, Jiji the Cat, Ponyo and Laputa are all in stock now.

In other news, we're happy to tell you that the Moero Downhill Night game -- a fun PC dating-sim in which you help pretty girls win fast downhill races then, if you've played right, get to find romance -- is in stock and shipping. You can choose between the shrinkwrapped DVD-ROM version of the game or opt for the speedy Download Edition. Click here to see the game, or here to visit the official site (and see the awesome CG racing scenes, rendered by the staff of Initial D!).

Moero Downhill Night

More good news! We've been making some changes in the product categories here at J-List, simplifying the layout so it's easier for you to find the products you want. For example, there are now just three types of magazine -- photographic, "2D" (including all anime and manga magazines) and fashion, with everything clearly labeled. We now have top category for Cosplay with sub-sections to make it easier for you to browse, and ditto for Bento -- you can now view all bento items together, or view only bento boxes, bento accessories, etc. The changes aren't completely done and we're still polishing, but feedback is appreciated!

Sunday, November 08, 2009

That live action Macross pachinko CM, if you want to see

And you've been in Japan when you call a commercial a "CM"...