Friday, December 11, 2009

Kanji of the Year for 2009: Shin (New)

Each year the organization that publishes the Standardized Kanji Test announces the "kanji of the year," the character that best sums up the events of the past twelve months. Previous characters have included inochi (life) in 2005 to mark the terrible young lives lost in suicides that year, tora (tiger) in 2003 to comemorate the Hanshin Tigers' victory that year, nise (fake) in 2007, a year marred by manufactrers intentionally mis-labeling food products, and hen (change) for 2008, symbolizing the many changs the world went through that year. The official kanji for 2009 has been announced, and it's...shin, meaning "new." (Correctly pronounced like "sheen," not like the bone in your leg.) There are many things that were renewed this year, starting with the historic change of government in Japan as the Liberal Democratic Party was defeated by the Democratic Party of Japan, ending a half-century of nearly unbroken rule. The presidency of Mr. Obama was no doubt on the minds of the people who voted for this year's kanji, and perhaps the H1N1 influenza variant, which was a certainly a major concern for everyone this year. It was also a year of renewal for the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation organization itself: scandals involving improper use of funds by the group's former president racked the organization this year, which nearly caused Kyoto's Kiyomizu Temple to deny them permission to hold the iconic ceremony there.

The official kanji of 2009 isshin (new), presumably not related to Crayo Shin-chan.

Moe Moe Blood Donations!

The current outbreak of the "new type influenza virus" (as H1N1 is callled in the Japanese media) is having a negative effect on an unexpected area, the nation's blood supply, and the Japan Red Cross is reporting that levels of blood in Japan is at an all-time low. But the Red Cross in Akihabara has come up with an innovative way to get Japan's millions of otaku to open a vein for a good cause: using the popular Vocaloid character Miku Hatsune. The office has been renovated to look like some kind of futuristic space, with beautiful lights and dozens of Vocaloid-related toys and figures on display, including a real 3D hologram that fans can gaze at. They can watch Miku-chan performing her eerily beautiful computer-generated songs on TV while blood is drawn, and Miku thanks them when they're done.

The Akihabara branch of the Red Cross uses Miku Hatsune to get more blood donations -- smart.

Of Christmas in Japan, and Reindeer Hamburg Steak

Christmas is upon us, and for a gaijin living in Japan that means one thing: being asked to dress up like "Santa-san" for Japanese kids. I've been asked to play Santa many times, and it's always fun to bring a little joy to the kids, who are sure you're the real Santa because you're a gaijin. At one preschool I was ho-ho-ho'ing at, there was a question and answer period where the kids asked me things like, "Where do you live?" (er, Norway) and "What is your favorite color?" (red). One kid asked what Santa's favorite food was, and I got creative and replied, "Reindeer hamburg," which kind of freaked them out a little. In Japan, a hamburg in Japan is a steak made with ground beef, which we used to call a Salsbury Steak back in the days of tin-foil TV dinners before microwave ovens came along. Meat is expensive in Japan, and a steak made from ground beef is a more reasonable menu choice. Some restaurants such as Denny's and Coco's go out of their way to brand themselves as selling "authentic hamburg steak just like Americans eat," and with the bad economy here, sales of the reasonably-priced steaks are booming. In case you were wondering: just as a "hamburg" is essentially the hamburger part without the bun around it, the word for a hot dog/frankfurter eaten all by itself is a "frankfurt."

I don't know a single gaijin male who was not pressed into service as Santa-san at least once.

More Gift Ideas: Hello Kitty, Snacks, iTunes Cards & More

It's time for more random gift suggestions from Peter. Of course we do have an outstanding selection of unique Hello Kitty products from Japan, and it can be fun to check the top 50 items this week, or browse all Hello Kitty items. If you check the top-selling snacks page, you'll see that the Japan Kit Kat flavors we carry are really popular, like the new Royal Milk Tea flavour. Our traditional Food Drops continue to be popular with customers, and they've all but taken over the top "traditional" products page. Finally, the iTunes Japan prepaid cards and convenient J-List Gift Certificates are an awesome suggestion for anyone -- you can even gift 3000 yen worth of iTunes credit now!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Space Battleship Yamato Reborn

This has really been an awesome year to be an anime fan in Japan. In addition to the usual stream of worthwhile series on TV, there have been some excellent releases on the big screen, and I realize now that all my trips to the movie theatre this year have been to watch anime films, except for the new Harry Potter movie. (Aside: have we nerds taken over the world, or what?) First there was the Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance film, then the recently released Macross Frontier movie, both of which were great to see. And now we've got another treat: a brand-new Space Battleship Yamato film, which is set to "roadshow" (as a movie premier is called here) this Saturday. A melodramatic space opera in which Japan's most famous battleship is reborn to save the Earth from the Americans and their atomic bombs the evil Desslar and his radioactive planet bombs, Space Battleship Yamato (or Star Blazers, as it was known in English) is one of the major achievements of the era, telling a compelling story with love, death and all those other themes no one thought that animation should deal with. Fans of incredibly complex sci-fi shows like Battlestar Galactica or Babylon 5 absolutely have Yamato to thank for showing us the way.

The Yamato is off to save the Earth again this weekend, and I've got my Wave Motion Goggles ready.

Strange Tastes in Japan: Melonpan, Ginger Ale Kit Kat and More

Coming to live in Japan means getting used to new things, like navigating streets with large uncovered ditches beside them for gaijin to ride their bicycles into in the dark, and the agony of finding you've run out of kerosene for your space heater on the coldest night of the year. It also means encountering a lot of new and sometimes strange flavors, such as melonpan, a vaguely brain-shaped round bread with sugar and melon juice on the outside. The Japanese are fond of milk-flavored products like "milk-bread," which is not something my brain is set up to process, and milk-flavored "soft cream" (soft-serve ice cream) is also quite common as a separate flavor from vanilla entirely. The Japanese go out of their way to eat healthy foods, and my wife is always giving me strange things like cookies made from black sesame seeds, washed down with a cold glass of vinegar. Aloe may be great for making your skin supple, but the Japanese think it's tasty, too, and there are several brands of aloe yogurt to choose from in the supermarket. If you've ever browsed J-List's extensive list of snack offerings, you've probably been surprised by one or two items, such as Ginger Ale Kit Kat or the unique Azuki flavored Pepsi, and if you really want to enjoy a selection of unique flavors, there's always our line of Japanese Food Drops, candies that taste like some of Japan's most famous dishes.

Shana of the Blazing Eyes is a big fan of Melonpan.

Let's Bring Our Family to Japan to Live!

I caught a TV show the other day that dealt with the issue of Japan's falling population, focusing not on the Japanese themselves by on the relatively low number of foreigners who come to live here permanently. The show discussed countries like Ireland and Singapore, which have policies encouraging foreigners to immigrate and integrate culturally, bringing many benefits including a more diverse workforce and a healthier tax base. By and large, Japan has no plan to try to entice people from other countries to come live and work here, aside from a few halting programs to bring in healthcare workers from Malaysia or the Philippines, which is tragic since the time for visionary policies that define Japan's position in the world is now. One interesting exception to this lack of an official immigration policy is the town of Niseko, Hokkaido, which has become popular with gaijin from the U.S., Australia and Europe thanks to its excellent skiing and golf courses, and the number of foreigners buying land and building houses there is very high. I like to think I've done a good job of giving something back to the country that's become my second home, founding a successful company and hiring employees and promoting a deeper interest in Japan among people around the world. I'd love to see Japan become a more open place where this kind of success story could be more common.

By the way, I weirded the Japanese staff out with this image, I think.

A parody of a famous poster advising Japanese to immigrate to Brazil I whipped up.

Random Gift Ideas from Japan

J-List is a great place to find unexpected gifts for that special person on your list, especially if they have a fascination with some aspect of Japan or another. J-List's 2010 calendars have been extremely popular this year, so popular that they're starting to sell out way sooner than expected, so you might browse our selection and see what gift-worthy items are there. There's nothing like keeping the inner geek alive even as you enter the business world, and we think the otaku-approved business card holders we got in today are pretty cool. Our ukiyoe art skins for Sony PSP and Nintendo DS are awesome, too, and reasonably priced. 2009 has been the Year of Christmas Bento, and checking our selection of bento boxes or bento-related accessories might be a good place to start looking. Finally, we always carry tons of Hello Kitty items from Japan, such as the Sanrio-approved "shoulder massagers" (honest), which can be bought in sets of three for a discount, if you want to give them as gifts.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Of Thanksgiving and Tiramisu

On Sunday it was time for our family's Thanksgiving dinner. Yes, I know, whoever heard of an American having Thanksgiving in December, but both my kids were in the middle of studying for important tests at school, and I was asked by the family in general if we could delay things a week or two. We had all kinds of Costco-enabled good things to eat, from chicken to mashed potatoes to what my wife described as a "bucket of tiramisu" for dessert, which was so large and so delicious and so cheap that it's receiving quite a lot of buzz in the Japanese blogosphere. I think that there's something about living in a foreign country that makes a person more flexible than they'd otherwise be, as you realize that the cultural ideas we all take for granted don't always need to be adhered to that closely. If I ever become leader of the world, I'll make a law that says that all young people must live for at least a year in some other country, to give them some much-needed perspective on their own lives.

"American" Tiramisu compared with Japanese. This picture encapsulates things nicely.

Theory and Practice of Christmas in Japan

Although Japanese are now quite familiar with images of Christmas presents being delivered by "Santa-san" (as he's usually called) it wasn't always that way. During Japan's long period of sakoku ("chained country"), when the only foreigners allowed were Dutch traders in Nagasaki, Christmas was celebrated unofficially as "Barbarians' Winter Solstice." The starting point of Christmas as a general cultural phenomenon is said to be 1900, when department store Meiji-ya decided to expand its operations into the upscale Ginza part of Tokyo. To attract customers, they decided to decorate their store with a Christmas theme, which caused other stores to follow suit in short order. Confectionary company Fujiya introduced the British tradition of "Christmas cake" in 1910, and now millions of Japanese families reserve a cake from a cake shop or convenience store to eat on Christmas Eve each year. Christmas is seen as a fun time for families with kids, and Toys R Us has successfully trained parents and grandparents in the art of Christmas present giving. December is also a time for couples to enjoy a special night together, walking beneath the beautiful Christmas lights that sparkle in many parts of Tokyo this month. Even Akihabara is getting into the spirit, with a gorgeous Mobile Suit Gundam Christmas tree celebrating the 30th anniversary of the series.

Christmas is a time for couples to enjoy a special date together.

Costco in Japan

Over the weekend I made the 65 km journey to the nearest Costco, the membership warehouse chain from the U.S., which operates nine of its mammoth stores in Japan. To a gaijin who's been here long enough to remember driving for miles because someone heard a rumor that an import food shop had gotten in some Doritos, having a fully stocked Costco within range of my house is a little piece of heaven. The layout of the stores is exactly like the ones back home, so that we even know what part of the store to go to without searching, and the company won points with me for having my U.S. membership in their database already -- that's a lot more visionary than some Japanese video websites that not only require that you use Windows but that you use Internet Explorer if you want to view their content. There are plenty of good products from the U.S. on display at the store, but it was also fun to roam the aisles and see what unique Japanese items they stocked -- I mean, does your local Costco have takoyaki and taiyaki in the frozen foods section, and corn pizza at the food court?

Costco is an island of convenience for a gaijin in Japan.

Five Gift Ideas from Peter

J-List is really receiving a ton of orders from all over the world who want to bring a bit of authentic Japan to the people on their Christmas list. J-List definitely is a great place for anyone to look for gifts, and no matter who you're buying for, you can find that special something that will surprise and delight them. Like our extensive selection of from-Japan Hello Kitty and Sanrio products, or our fun original anime T-shirts with kanji on them, since everyone loves kanji. Our Mousse-chan Paper Clay and "Let's Make Eraser with Microwave" craft molds are great fun, and we've got tons of these items in stock, and our Fukubukuro Grab Bags are another good suggestion (if they don't sell sell out). Finally, be sure to browse our 2010 calendars -- they're frankly disappearing at a faster rate than we ever thought possible, and some of the best will soon be gone (we're looking at you, Totoro).
Do you have a website? Want to help J-List evangelize our unique brand of Japanese popular culture? Then consider the Friends of J-List Affiliate Program, an excellent way for you to help people find J-List and help your site, too. We've just rolled out a cool new feature, an automatically generated product tower that shows exactly the products you choose. The content can be totally customized, so whatever kind of site you've got, you can show exactly the cool items your readers would love to see. For more information on the program, read this page.