Thursday, December 24, 2009

New Year's Cards for 100 Million

Can you hear that endless mechanical noise? It's the sound of thousands of inkjet printers in Japan, grinding out nengajo, the traditional New Year's Cards that are so much fun to receive on January 1st. Just as video camera technology around the world is greatly aided by Japan's tradition of school "Sports Day" events, when children run relay races as proud parents capture the action with the latest HD video camera, printing technology owes a great debt to the custom of New Year's Card giving in Japan -- I wouldn't be surprised if the printer driver installed in your computer has built-in support for a paper size called hagaki, which is Japanese for "postcard." Every year hundreds of New Year's Card-related products are offered to consumers, from newfangled inkjet printers to professional printing services offered by Fuji Film, which are being pitched by Maki Horikita this year. 2010 is the Year of the Tiger, so I expect a lot of people will be incorporating tigers into their New Year's Card designs. What will our nengajo be? Find out on January 1st, like every one else.

Maki Horikita is this year's Fujicolor Image Girl, and very kawaii.

The Customer is God

Recently I wrote about how one of the more pleasant aspects of Japan was the high level of service you can generally expect. The Japanese version of "the customer is always right" is okyaku-san wa kamisama, literally "the customer is God," and it's not hard to see this attitude in action. Most of the time you'd expect store employee to try to sell you stuff you don't need, but when I tried to buy some stupid plug-in cards for a camera I was getting, one employee went out of his way to tell me they were a waste of money. Once I dropped the tray that holds water to make ice cubes in my refrigerator, and when I went to order a replacement I expected them to charge me $100 or more, but to my surprise they charged me just $1, despite having me by the proverbial octopus balls. I'm also impressed whenever I get my car serviced at the Mazda dealership, operated by the company directly, as is the norm in Japan. As I pull out, the employee who was helping me walks out into the street to stop traffic for me, literally placing himself at risk of bodily injury to make that final good impression on me. The strategy might be working: I realize we've bought four cars from them over the years.

Getting your car serviced in Japan might make you feel like God.

Christmas in Japan is Less "Real"

Of course one of the most enjoyable things to do this time of year is...Christmas shopping. I'm quite a kurisumasu otaku, or fan of all things Christmas, and I love hitting the malls to shop while getting into the Christmas spirit, perhaps while sipping one of those Egg Nog Lattes from Starbuck's, which they don't sell in Japan. They have shopping malls in Japan, of course, which are all beautifully decorated, but there's something fundamentally less "real" about Christmas there. I hit some of my favorite shopping malls in San Diego today, picking up some items that I think my family will love. As usual when I'm back in the U.S., I'm bowled over not just by the size of the "small" drink served at restaurants (which is quite a bit larger than the Japanese version), but by the incredible variety of choices available to everyone here, even just roaming the strip mall near my house. There's nothing like living in a foreign country to make you appreciate how good things are back home.

Christmas in Japan is beautiful, but somehow feels less "real" than back home.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Manga, the Whimsical Pictures of Japan

Manga are the famous Japanese comics that have come to define Japan around the world. Literally meaning "whimsical pictures," the word manga was coined in 1811 by Hokusai, the ukiyoe artist who brought us the famous "36 Views of Fuji" paintings you've probably seen. People of all ages read manga comics in Japan, from the very young to full-fledged members of society, and every Sunday dozens of customers come by the rural liquor shop my wife's family runs to get the new issue of Shonen Jump -- even successful businessmen driving BMWs. Manga isn't just a fun thing to read for leisure: in no small way, it forms the basis for Japan's wider popular culture. Obviously many anime series start out as manga, like A Certain Magical Index or Azumanga Daioh, but it's not uncommon for mainstream dramas or feature films to be based on manga stories, as well. Some examples are the currently running Liar Game, a drama about a mysterious game in which players are each given 100 million yen and told to try to steal as much money from each other as they can, and Jin, the tale of a modern doctor who "time-slips" back 150 years into the Edo Period.

Manga is everyehwere in Japan -- here's a cute image from a songbook at my daughter's Christmas pageant.

The Mechanics of Keigo, or Polite Japanese

Every language represents different challenges to learners. If I were to study a Romance language like Spanish, I'd need to cope with the idea of nouns having genders, which might be difficult since they seem arbitrary when coming from English -- can anyone tell me why a pencil is el lapiz (male) while a pen is la pluma (female)? In Japanese, the mechanics of how politeness works is a potential rough spot for foreign students. While you can generally cover any polite situation by using the the formal forms of verbs rather than informal (for example, using the word ikimasu for "to go" instead of the informal iku, which you'd only use around close friends or people who were younger than you), there are times when a person wants to bring his nihongo to the next level. The most common word for "person" in Japanese is hito, but in business settings you often use two different terms, the "exhaulting" word kata when referring to a person in the company you're addressing, and the "humble" word mono (moh-noh) when talking about someone from your own company. If you want to experience a really awkward situation in Japan, get these two words confused, as I've done.

You should say kata when addressing another company, not mono, like I did.

Time For a "Kuri-Pa," or Christmas Party

Christmas is a happy time in Japan, when couples can exchange gifts or maybe plan a special evening together, and children can look forward to a visit from the most famous gaijin of them all, "Santa-san." It's also the season for kuri-pa, or Christmas Parties, and various groups will organize get-togethers complete with funny hats, noise-makers and firecrackers that shoot paper streamers into the air, making them appear closer to December 31st in some ways than Christmas, at least to my eyes. Over the weekend I attended a Christmas Concert at my son's school, and there was a small Christmas party afterwards for the students and parents. They'd prepared a real feast, too, with all manner of Japanese snack foods from Pocky to Kit Kat to these little snowman cookies that looked delicious. Unfortunately there was no teacher present to tell people it was okay to start the festivities, so everyone mulled around pretending they weren't surrounded by tables of delicious snacks, despite being hungry and thirsty after the long musical performance. It was a good example of the Japanese concept of enryo (ehn-ryoh), which means to show restraint or discretion in social situations, and I felt sorry for everyone there as I secretly filled my pockets with munchies.

When Christmas draws near, it's time for a Christmas Party with friends.