Friday, November 27, 2009

Random Driving Tips for Japan

Although large cities like Tokyo have extensive public transportation systems, out here in Gunma having a car is really a requirement. Driving in Japan can be a hectic experience at first as you get used to driving on the left side of the road, yet another example of Japan copying Britain during its period of modernization, but you get used to it quickly enough. Here are some other random tips for driving in Japan. If possible, don't drive behind those small "K" cars with the yellow license plates, as their engines can't go very fast. Don't have an accident when laughing at the fake police mannequins standing by the side of the road, which are there to scare drivers into slowing down. And if you see a car with Kobe license plates, make sure you keep your distance. Supposedly a lot of yakuza gangsters from the Kobe area like to get into accidents on purpose then make you pay for imagined injuries, which is called atariya or "professional accident faker."

The Toyota IQ is a spiffy-looking car, but you don't want to drive behind one in traffic.


Japan and "Juken" (Test-Taking)

Raising kids in Japan inevitably means guiding them through juken, or "taking an important test." Both my kids had to pass difficult entrance exams to get into their current schools, which we prepared for for several weeks, and it was an interesting process for me to observe as an outsider. Japanese are very good at getting into "juken mode," spending hours not only studying the subject matter but coming up with concrete strategies for passing the test based on their own strengths and weaknesses. (Sometimes they wear these while they study.) Helping your kids prepare for tests brings the dramatic moment when you hear the results. My son recently took "pre-level 1" of the "Eiken" standardized test of English, which is so difficult that many college students couldn't manage it. Receiving word that he passed the test was one of the high points of his life, and we were all very happy. The Japanese Language Proficiency Test is just nine days away, and if you'll be taking the test, J-List wishes you good luck!

Some students wait to see if they've passed their university entrance exams.

Even More Gift Ideas from J-List, Sale Event Reminder

Remember that J-List is in full "Christmas mode," processing orders with great speed and getting them out the door to you with no delay. We've got thousands of great items for making your gift-giving extra special this year, including beautiful traditional products like our Lucky Cat tea cups, fine Totoro plates from Noritake, awesome Japanese Snack Gift Sets, delightful Hello Kitty products from Japan, and more. Remember: Through Monday, we'll send you a coupon for $5 for every $100 you spend on the site as a special way of saying thanks for making J-List your favorite wacky shop in Japan.

Are The Japanese Too Polite?

The Japanese have developed a reputation for being among the most polite people in the world. Perhaps this is related to the country's high population for its land area -- 834 people per square mile, compared with just 86 in the U.S. -- or perhaps it has something to do with living in houses with paper doors. Japanese tourists are consistently ranked the world's most polite, and the local version of the "men at work" sign expresses deep apology for the inconvenience the construction is causing everyone -- isn't that cool? But could it be the Japanese are too polite for their own good? When Japanese people have a problem with something someone is doing, they'll usually have a discussion among themselves about it and never, ever ask the individual to change their behavior. While at a stoplight, it's common to turn your headlights off to avoid blinding the person across the intersection from you, and the idea of leaving your car in the parking lot of the "coin laundry" while you run into the post office next door would be scandalous, so they park along the dangerous street instead. This strange politeness exists in the business world, too. When J-List contacts a distributor whose products we want to sell, they always ask if we've already got a relationship with another distributor in their industry, and will avoid doing business with us if the answer is yes. You'd think that companies would try to win customers from their competitors by offering better products and services, but Japanese distribution companies are sometimes too honorable for their own good.

Even the road construction signs in Japan are polite.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Japan, Conformity and Thanksgiving

I've written before about how Japan seems to be a very harmonious place, where people are more or less on the same wavelength about most things. While this leads to a happier, more stable society all around, it also creates a certain degree of "tyranny of the masses" in which, say, it becomes difficult to find low-fat milk in stores because the Japanese love to drink the 3.7% milk-fat stuff instead. Sadly for this time of year, the list of foods that are difficult to find in Japan includes turkey, which the Japanese never developed a habit of eating, and this can make trying to have a traditional Thanksgiving difficult for an American in Japan. We'll muddle through however -- I forsee a big bucket of KFC in my family's future.

Another example of Japan appearing perhaps "too" unified is the separation of gomi (trash), which becomes quite important when you have a country with half the population of the U.S. living in 1/25 the area. Depending on your city's local rules, trash must be separated into categories such as burnable -- called moeru, which sounds like an anime term although it's a different word altogether -- cans (steel and aluminum must be separate), plastics, "natural resource" items like PET bottles and newspapers, and "dangerous items" like light bulbs. Trash must be left in the designated place at 7:30 am, and the pick-up day for each kind of trash is different. Everyone will know if you're not careful enough at separating your trash, since people are required to use designated clear trash bags and (depending on local rules) write their names on the side. Not following the proper gomi procedures or trying to -- gasp! -- put your trash out the night before won't earn you a fine by the police or anything, but something much worse: the silent disapproval of your neighbors, which is a very difficult thing to bear.

Do you get this joke? Moeru sounds like a cool moe anime, although the kanji is different. Mr. Yaranaika is moenai gomi or something that I just can't get into, although the real meaning of moenai gomi is "trash that will not burn."

Japanese gomi comformity can be a challenge for anyone.

Lucky Grab Bags, Much More from Japan

J-List is stocked to the brim with awesome products from Japan, which you can order and receive in plenty of time for Christmas. We've got rare toys, charming traditional products from Japan, awesome 2010 calendars, warm hoodies and T-shirts and fun Japanese snacks that'd be fun to give to others. Today we're posting our popular Fuku-bukuro, aka "Lucky Bag" grab-bags filled with random fun products at a great price, which are customers love. And more good news: Through Monday, we'll send you a coupon for $5 for every $100 you spend on the site as a special way of saying thanks to you.

I love using the Internet because it lets us interact with people from all over the world in a way that's very personal. I have embraced Twitter, and use it to throw out thoughts on Japan, anime and also J-List-related site news. You can follow my normal Twitter account, I've added some automated feeds that let you see when new products are added to J-List, including @jlist_anime (anime & toy items), @jlist_bento (bento related), @jlist_HK (Hello Kitty items), @jlist_snack (new snack items), and @jlist_18_books and @jlist_tenga (both NSFW). Just follow these feeds and see products as they pop onto the site.

Get Married in the Georgian House

When you drive in the city of Takasaki, located next to J-List's home of Isesaki and the Gunma prefectural capital of Maebashi, you can tell there's something different about the place. The roads are much more cramped and narrow than normal, enough so that I actually get tired when driving there. The reason Takasaki's roads are much harder to navigate, I've been told, is that the city was never bombed during World War II, which meant that the city center was never redesigned to be more modern and easy to use. Driving in crowded Takasaki, therefore, you might be surprised to see a beautiful old-style manor home right near the train station, which looks like something transported from 18th century England. It's a wedding hall called The Georgian House, one of the most popular places to get married in our prefecture. Couples can choose exactly the kind of traditional British (?) wedding they want, complete with a ride in a Rolls-Royce. For extra realism, you can have your wedding ceremony performed by a gaijin minister, who oddly enough looks just like the guy who teaches English conversation around the corner -- imagine that.

You can get married in a beautiful 18th century British manor in Japan. Is this what British weddings are like?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Macross Frontier Movie Report

It's not every day a Macross movie comes out, so my son and I headed down to our local theatre to check it out. It was the theatrical release of the Macross Frontier series, which tells the story of the 25th colonial fleet to depart after the final Zentraedi battle of 2009. The movie was great, with new animation , many changes to the story and characters, all the requisite "fan service" scenes, and since it's Macross, lots of new songs. (If it had been Star Trek, there'd be lots of new space anomalies.) As usual, it was fun to compare movie theatres in Japan with the ones back home. The theatre we were at was new and clean, and they offered little extras like lap blankets for customers who got cold in the theatre, and Yebisu beer at the concession stand, bless them. Japanese movies are expensive, however, costing $20 for an adult ticket at the current exchange rates, and the last showing is usually around 9:00 pm, since Japanese never got the habit of going to movies late at night. If you're the kind of person to laugh heartily at jokes, you might find yourself laughing alone, since Japanese are generally very quiet while viewing a movie.

The new Macross Frontier movie is great, with 90% all new animation compared to the series.

Handing Gifts in Japan

An American friend came to visit me over the weekend, and I drove to the train station to pick him up. Like me, he'd lived in Japan for quite a long time, and had unconsciously internalized the various customs all around him. He did what many Japanese do when visiting someone, bringing a gift (senbei crackers from his home prefecture), since going to see someone without a gift in hand is considered rude. When he gave the gift to me, I received it from him with both hands, inadvertently making a little bow of thanks, and this caused a few amused smiles by Japanese walking by, since seeing two gaijin doing a proper gift-handing isn't something you see everyday. Later, we went up to the mountains for some relaxing onsen bathing and talked. We spoke English, but switched to Japanese when a certain nihongo word or phrase fit the situation better. This proved irresistible to the Japanese bathers around us, who cranked their ears to listen in on our interesting conversation.

When you hand someone a gift (or business card) in Japan, always use both hands.

Seeing Japan Through One's Media of Choice

When I came to Japan in 1991, I brought with me a large body of knowledge of Japan's popular culture, from anime to manga to Ultraman. While it was nice to have this information handy, the reality was that the "true" Japan I encountered was -- of course -- not the same as the stylized world I'd seen. Many things I encountered here, like narrow streets or bankrupt pachinko parlors or shouting deranged men on trains were nowhere to be seen in the anime or manga that I'd consumed while learning Japanese. It's analogous to Japanese who learn English by watching Hollywood movies then wonder why Bruce Willis isn't hanging out on every street corner waiting to bust some bad guys. While there's probably no way to avoid this tendency to see Japan through your media of choice, my advice is to mix things up as much as you can by sampling different kinds of popular culture. Japan's dramas, while still presenting a stylized subset of the "real" Japan, might be a good place to start.

I'll bet you've never seen one of these babies in your favorite moe anime.

More Gift Ideas from J-List

J-List is receiving tons of orders as our customers all around the world scour our site for the perfect gift ideas. J-List is a really great place to find that special gift you're looking for because we've got such a range of fun "random" items from Japan, it's not hard to find something that will surprise and delight your receipient. Like cool Domo-kun figures, T-shirts and hats, our always-awesome selection of Totoro related products, fun and wacky Star Wars items from Japan, or one of the fun Japanese Snack Gift Sets we have on the site. Another way to find ideas is to scan the "top 50" rankings, which show you the top-selling anime toy, figure, 2010 calendar, T-shirt and hoody, bento, traditional and other items for the current week -- it's quite cool to see what other J-List customers are buying. What can J-List do for you right now?