Friday, December 04, 2009

Turning Japanese

The other day I met an American friend for drinks. Because his wife is from China, their kids grow up learning three languages, Chinese, English and Japanese, which always fascinates me. "But didn't I tell you? My wife is Japanese now. She took citizenship." Taking the citizenship of another country is a very special thing -- it means that you've accepted the language, culture and values of your adopted nation and are willing to be counted as one of their number, a decision my friend's wife had made. Although it's one of the most homogeneous places on Earth, foreigners can take Japanese nationality if they meet certain reasonable requirements, including having lived in Japan continuously for five years and having at least basic ability in the language. It's even easier too, now, thanks to a policy change that doesn't require foreigners to take a Japanese name and kanji (although some foreigners like to see their name in kanji). Athletes often take Japanese citizenship for one reason or another, such as the Hawaiian or Mongolian sumo wrestlers who want to run their own sumo stable one day, and gaijin tarento (foreign TV stars) like Bobby Ologun from Nigeria often become Japanese citizens. I'm often asked by J-List customers if I've gotten my Japanese citizenship yet, and I tell them no, I'm quite happy with the permanent residence status I've got now. Mrs. J-List says I would make a kakko warui (lame) Japanese and should stay an American.

It's nice to know there are few barriers to becoming a Japanese citizen, in case it ever becomes an issue.

Want To Learn Japanese? Hai, so desu.

When you start to learn Japanese, the first thing you need to tackle is hiragana, the basic writing system that lets you express sounds in writing. Back in my college days there were more people wanting to take Japanese 101 than could fit in the room, so my teacher declared that everyone who wanted in had to learn hiragana within a week, which got the class size down to a more manageable level in a hurry. Then it's time to roll up your sleeves and start learning vocabulary and getting used to sentences that are ordered differently from English, with the subject at the front of the sentence (when it's not omitted just for fun) followed by the object then the verb. One of the interesting things students discover is that the word "so" is exactly the same in Japanese as in English, e.g. so desu ka? Is that so? hai, so desu Yes, that's so. This took some time for me to wrap my brain around.

J-List has some good suggestions for learning Japanese.


Green Tea Kit Kat, Fukubukuro and More

I try my best to post good Christmas gift suggestions in this space, but it can be a challenge since we have so many items, all of which would potentially be a good gift for someone, depending on what they're interested in. In celebration of International Day of the Ninja (Dec. 5), we've got lots of awesome ninja-related items that would be fun to share with others. If you love Japanese snacks like we do, you'll be tickled at the Limited Matcha and Wasabi Kit Kat in gift-able large boxes, which probably won't last long. Our "Lucky Bag" random grab bags are flying off our virtual shelves, and we've added San Diego-based grab bags with anime toy and ecchi items for you. If you're picking up any San Diego-based items, you can buy a spiffy J-List printed bag (as seen at the conventions this year), great either for putting gifts in or just for using, since it's a really awesome bag. Finally, we are loaded with cute and affordable traditional Japanese items you couldn't find outside a classy gift shop in Kyoto, like the Eco Washi Daruma and Lucky Cat figures we posted, which contain your fortune...and a seed to plant a tree!

Quentin Taratino Joins the Softbank Family

One of the more interesting aspects of living in Japan is seeing famous faces from back home starring in local TV commercials. Like Tommy Lee Jones playing an alien observing human behavior while he drinks Boss Coffee, or Charlize Theron frolicking in the bath, or Harrison Ford downing a cold Kirin Ichiban Shibori beer then wiping the foam from his mouth. The '24' commercials in which Jack Bauer chases terrorists through Tokyo then takes a quick Calorie Mate break are classic, and they even brought Audrey Hepburn back from the dead to plug Afternoon Milk Tea. There's a word in Japanese -- miihaa -- which describes a person who can't resist the latest trends and who goes ga-ga over seeing a famous person. Some companies develop reputations as miihaa too, when they use famous foreigners in their TV commercials a lot. The "King of Miihaa" in Japan has got to be Softbank, which has paid millions to stars such as Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz -- she got $3 million for six hours of work, for example -- to plug its cell phones. Now Quentin Tarantino has joined the ranks of famous gaijin in Japanese TV commercials, showing off his kung-fu prowess beside the cute white dog Otosan ("Dad").

"Uncle Quentin" is the newest addition to the Softbank family.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Standing Prime Minister is Nailed Down

One of the most famous phrases related to Japan is deru kui wa utararu (de-ru KOO-ee wa oo-TAH-reh-roo), which means "the standing nail is driven" and describes the tendency of Japanese to want to "hammer down" anyone who rises above others, or who stands out. This concept comes up in politics quite often, and the minute a new Prime Minister takes office, he quickly finds himself assailed from all sides. Prime Minister Hatoyama is in hot water over over not properly declaring financial gifts totaling 900 million yen ($10 million) from his mother, who is the daughter of the founder of the Bridgestone Tire Company. It's leading to a lot of jokes about the Prime Minister getting his cash stipend to families with children early -- poking fun at the Democratic Party of Japan's promise to divert money from public works projects and dole it out to families instead. Apparently Mr. Hatoyama isn't the down-to-earth everyman, sitting around reading Kani-Kousen (Crab-Canning Ship, the famous anti-Capitalist novel that's been getting popular in Japan in recent years) he was painted as.

Hatoyama answers questions before the Diet.

Origin of the Atari Name and Logo

There are many benefits of learning Japanese. You get to interact with some of the friendliest people in the world and share your ideas with them, and learn about Japan on a new level. Another fun aspect of studying Japanese is finding out what all those company names mean. Like how Subaru is the Japanese word for the Pleiades star group, which was logical as it was formed when seven smaller companies merged into one. Or how Nintendo's kanji name is a shortened version of a Chinese proverb which translates as, "Man does what man can do then awaits the verdict of heaven or fate." Or how many company names like Asahi and Hitachi mean "sunrise," a famous image of the country. Another interesting name is Atari, which company founder Nolan Bushnell chose when no one liked his first pick, Syzygy. Originally a term in the Japanese game of go that's similar to "checkmate" in chess, the verb ataru means to hit (as in to hit something with your body), to try something, or to be successful at something. If someone guesses the correct answer to a question you've asked, you can say "Atari!" to mean "that's correct!" When you learn the kanji for ataru you get another surprise, as it looks very much like the company's logo.

The iconic Atari logo was derived from a Japanese kanji for ataru.

My Daughter, the Dojikko

I've always thought my life would make a good basis for a 4-koma (4-panel) manga, perhaps called "Papa wa Gaikoujin" (Dad is a Foreigner). I think there'd be a lot of potential humor in a comic about an American who runs a company in Japan, and how his Japanese employees adjust to working for a foreigner who pulls out Gundam quotes at random. The comic would also feature my wife, who pretends to be an average Japanese woman despite having married me, and my overly-analytical son, a "physics otaku" given to pointing out everyone's faults like Meru Otonashi from Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei. But the star of the comic would be my daughter, who is the classic Japanese dojikko or clumsy lead character, like Sailor Moon or Doremi from the magical girl anime. Her love of reading manga instead of studying, tendency to fail to know any English or Japanese word at the most embarrassing moment and general ability to make everyone else in the family say nyoro~n! a lot (essentially meaning "oh, I am so upset") would be funny to read, I think.

Magical Girl Doremi (center) is an example of a dojikko or clumsy character, like my daughter.

Today is Awesome Bento Day at J-List!

We're declaring today to be Awesome Bento Day, when we bring you some of the most excellent bento boxes from Japan, perfect either for giving as a gift or to use for yourself. See beautiful traditional bento boxes, fresh stock of our best-selling Totoro Thermal Bento Box Set, plus a huge selection of bento accessories. You can see all our bento boxes here, browse bento accessories like those fun onigiri makers here, or scan the top-selling bento items on the site here and here.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Carnivore Zentraedi

It's fun to observe how the social trends of each era are reflected in the anime being produced at the time. Back in the 80s, it was common for pop idols like Seiko Matsuda to go out of their way to act ridiculously cute as a way of winning fans. This was called burikko or "false girl," and you can clearly see this pattern in the original Macross series with Lynn Minmei. Today two words heard in the media a lot are nikushoku joshi and soshoku danshi, literally meaning carnivore women and herbivore men, which describe the recent tendency for women to become more assertive about everything from their careers to sex while many men become more mellow about life, less ambitious and in some ways more effeminate. In the new Macross Frontier series, one of the more interesting characters is Klan Klang, a giant Zentraedi female warrior who is the epitome of a strong, heroic woman, at least when she's in her macronized state. She's an interesting foil to the main character of the series, Alto, a former kabuki actor who played female roles on stage and whose nickname is "Princess Alto."

Klan Klang is one bad-ass Zentraedi, although her micronized (loli) form is less so.

The Concept of "Enryo," and Pizza

Last time I talked about how Japanese will (usually) avoid confronting someone directly if the individual is doing something they don't like. This behavior is part of a wider social pattern called enryo (ehn-ryoh), which means showing restraint or discretion, or used as a verb, to refrain from doing something. In general, it's considered good manners to stoically endure an inconvenient situation and defer to others when interacting socially, and most Japanese have this so deeply ingrained in them it can be difficult to turn off. The classic enryo situation is that last piece of pizza, which goes to waste because everyone in the room is too busy being polite and saying "no, you eat it" to each other. One "cure" for this overly polite behavior is the English language itself, since by its nature it forces Japanese to break their own thinking patterns, use informal speech and talk to people using their first names rather than using the -san name ending, which can create unwanted formality. So when I want to get the Japanese staff of J-List to loosen up during our annual karaoke night after our official Year-End Party, I can start speaking English and watch them relax.

Eating pizza with Japanese people is good because you usually get more for yourself.

Images of Japan Seen Through World War II

World War II was a tumultuous time, and it's interesting looking at the various ways our current image of Japan was formed by the experiences of those who lived through it. Japan's warrior soldiers served as the inspiration for more than one non-human race in popular culture, most famously the Klingons of Star Trek, whose bushido-style system of honor and feudal society are based on Japan. The original novel of Planet of the Apes was written by Pierre Boulle of France and was based on his experiences in a prison camp during the war. (He also wrote Bridge Over the River Kwai.) Images of Japan during the war have filtered through in interesting other ways. For example, everyone knows about the hachimaki headbands the Japanese wear, which declare for all to see your intention, whether it's to defeat your enemies at all costs or pass that difficult test.

J-List Christmas Update

Remember that J-List is in full "Christmas mode," ready to get any order out to you in record time. There are thousands of unique items on J-List that would be great for your holiday list. Like some fun ways to enjoy traditional Japanese sake, relaxation toys that move back and forth through the miracle of solar power, the best selection of bento boxes and related items anywhere, plus this year's excellent crop of anime calendars and Studio Ghibli schedule books. Another fun way to get ideas for gifts is to add our J-List customer wishlist addition feed to your RSS reader. And good news: J-List is extending our special offer this year another week, giving you $5 back for every $100 you spend on the site (shipping excluded) in the form of an electronic coupon you can use on the site at any time, with no limitations.