Friday, January 08, 2010

Hanko Name Stamps in Japan

One interesting difference between Japan and the West is the use of hanko, or name stamps, when indicating approval on a document, filling out forms at the bank, and so on. A custom imported from China ages ago, virtually every Japanese carries one of these unique name stamps with them. As a newly-arrived gaijin in Japan, having a name stamp meant the ability to choose an official kanji name for myself, and I remember how much fun it was registering my hanko at my local city office. There are various ways to go about assigning kanji characters to a foreigner's name, including basing it on the pronunciation or assigning your name as an unofficial reading for the kanji that represents your name. Incidentally, J-List has a great custom name stamp service, which includes free assigning of a kanji name to you, based on your preferences. The hanko stamps are even legal for use in Japan!

For some reason, it doesn't occur to anyone to steal your hanko stamp and withdraw all your money.

Winter in Japan

Without a doubt, Japan is a country that loves it's seasons. At any time during casual conversation, there's a 23% chance of a Japanese person suddenly saying, "By the way, did you know that Japan has four distinct seasons? Unlike America, which has only two." (Apparently these people need to travel outside of Southern California.) Right now it's winter, time to sit in the kotatsu with the family eating delicious sukiyaki out of a pot in the center of the table, then have some mikan oranges and green tea later. One of my favorite images of winter in Japan are kamakura, traditional igloo-like snow domes which are made as part of winter festivals in the colder parts of Japan, especially Niigata, Akita and Hokkaido. (They're unrelated to the city of Kamakura, with its beautiful Buddha statue.) With electric lights and kotatsu heaters inside, they're a great place to enjoy a little hot sake while feeling the cold beauty of the snow all around you.

Kamakura (snow domes) are a great traditional image of winter in Japan.

Psychoses of Foreigners in Japan

Living in a place as homogeneous as Japan brings out some interesting psychoses in people, and one could fill a book studying what goes on in the minds of foreigners living here. I do believe every gaijin secretly wishes he were the only non-Japanese person in the country, and there's a strange tension that arises when foreigners encounter each other for the first time, as each tries to mentally categorize the other. Many foreigners living in Japan are actively hostile towards the "gaijin talents" who are able to appear on TV only (they say) because they happen to have learned the language well. This is nothing more than jealousy, although I do truly hate that guy Dave Specter, who dyes his black hair blonde to look more like a proper American as he dishes out Hollywood gossip on the morning "wide show." Then there are the "Three Stages of Eye Aversion" that gaijin seem to go through when encountering other foreigners. First, you can't keep from stealing glances at the strange foreign guy riding the train -- his very presence disturbs the glorious harmony in the train car, although for some reason yours doesn't. Then you realize how silly you're being, so you so hello to him, but then you find out that not everyone from Sri Lanka speaks English. Thoroughly embarrassed now, you vow to ever meet eyes with or talk to another foreigner again.

Some gaijin avoid looking at other foreigners.

Various Tidbits

J-List carries thousands of fun products, and one of our favorite categories are Ghibli and Totoro products. We've got a great lineup of Totoro products on the site now, like the plush Totoro and Catbus toys we've restocked today, and that awesome Totoro backpack. We've still got a few of the 2010 Totoro calendar, which functions as a picture frame when 2010 is done, and there are fun Ghibli-blessed snacks, too, like traditional Kompeito candies from Spirited Away or Milk Caramel from Morinaga, a favorite of the Catbus. You can even browse the top 50 Ghibli products on J-List right now -- fun!

In other news, we're happy to announce that Cat Girl Alliance, the newest dating-sim game from G-Collections, has gone "golden master" is will be shipping very soon. A hilarious game that focuses on the stranger side of the genre, you'll enjoy everything from cat girl cosplay to futanari and much more, and have loads of fun. With eight endings and dozens of paths to explore, this game is one that all fans should check out. Click here to see the game's official site if you like, or here to preorder the game for free shipping when it's ready.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Japan's Former Capital of Nara Turns 1300 Years Old

The year 2010 marks the 1300th anniversary of the founding of Nara, the former capital of Japan and one of my favorite places in the world. The city was built by Empress Gemmei in 710 in imitation of the Chinese city of Xi'an (where the terra cotta soldiers were buried), and it served as the center of Japanese civilization until 794 when the new capital of Heian-kyo (Kyoto) was established. During the Nara Period, Japan experienced an influx of Buddhist art and culture, and the oldest works of Japanese literature appeared during this time. Today Nara is principally famous for Todai-ji, the breathtakingly beautiful temple that houses the largest bronze Buddha statue in the world, and for deer, which walk freely throughout the sprawling Nara Park. The city government combined these two images to create Sento-kun, the official mascot commemorating the city's 1300-year history. Nara's birthday celebration will be going on all year, so if you have any plans to be in Japan, consider adding the city to your list of places to visit. (See this page for some useful tourist information.)

Walking through very old places like Nara, it might be easy to think that the fascination we foreigners feel for Japan is a new thing, but it's not. Back in the 1920s, a famous gaijin by the name of Albert Einstein visited Japan, invited to hold a series of lectures on General Relativity so that the Japanese could understand his theories. (If I know anything after teaching ESL for eight years, I'm pretty sure they smiled politely but didn't understand a word he said.) Everywhere Einstein went he was followed by reporters and fawning fans, and he stayed many months here, traveling all around the country and sharing his thoughts with leading Japanese scientists. He also schlepped around the Kyoto area, and was fascinated by the physics behind the nightingale floors in Nijojo Castle, which are designed to squeak when walked on so that ninja couldn't sneak into the castle. He also stayed in a traditional ryokan inn in Nara and walked around feeding the deer, just like foreign visitors do today. It's kind of cool to feel a kinship with such a famous person -- did he have trouble keeping his yukata on while he slept, too? How did he manage with chopsticks?

Nara is a beautiful ancient city in Japan, one of my favorites.

Kodomo Tencho, Japan's Cutest "Talent"

Japan's entertainment world is a very unique place, and it's interesting to observe it with my gaijin's eyes. Any given variety show will feature a panel of various interesting entertainers known as "talents" -- a comedy duo here, an actress there, perhaps a retired Hawaiian sumo wrestler or an American known for speaking a rare dialect of Japanese to spice things up a bit. The point is to entertain viewers with the mix of personalities and always offer something the viewer will want to watch. Currently one face you see a lot of is a Seishiro Kato, the nine-year-old child star who distinguished himself in last year's NHK Taiga Drama. He's universally known by the name Kodomo Tencho ("child store manager") due to a series of Toyota TV commercials in which he appears as the manager of a car dealership explaining about the tax breaks you get from buying a fuel-efficient car.

You can see "Kodomo Tencho" (child store manager) on Toyota commercials every day.

Back in Japan, and Other Stuff

Well, we're back in Japan after the approximately 20-hour door-to-door journey from San Diego. We had a great time in the U.S., spending time with family, shopping, and doing general "American stuff" we can't usually do here. I even got some quality time in watching a Chargers game with my son, which is impossible to do in Japan.

J-List has a huge selection of awesome books from Japan, from glossy artbooks to manga volumes to anime and manga magazines that give you free stuff in each issue. Like Azumanga Daioh? We've got the entire series in stock. Need a whole bunch of gorgeous anime posters? Hit just about any issue of Megami Magazine and your prayers will be answered. Want to explore the most beautiful art Japan has to offer? See artbooks like 100 Masters of Bishoujo Painting or Headphone Musume or the K-On! Official Guidebook. Magazines that give you free stuff are popular with our revolving magazine subscription customers, too.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Passing Decade, Coming Decade

Well, 2010 marks the end of the first decade of the 21st century, and good riddance, I say: no more trying to figure out how to refer to the current ten-year period in short form, like we do with normal decades such as the 80s or 90s. It certainly was a decade of change, with many aspects of our lives revolutionized on a daily basis, and we all got more connected with each other through the hive-mind known as the Internet. For J-List, it was an awesome decade of growth, as we served customers all around the world -- almost 300,000 of them, incredibly -- and discovered new and interesting ways to fulfill our mission of being a "Wonderful Toybox of Things from Japan" for you. Decades, of course, don't always begin or end in neat, rounded numbers. For me the 1980s ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but the 1990s didn't start until the Street Fighter II boom arrived. So when we look back on the new decade that's just beginning, it will probably look a lot different to us. But no matter what happens this decade, J-List plans to be a peaceful island of Japanese popular culture for you!

Street Fighter II started the 90s for me. What event will be the official start of the 2010's?


Ryoma Sakamoto, Renaissance Samurai

My wife is a very happy woman, thanks to NHK, Japan's version of the BBC and the Domo-kun people. Every year the television network produces one gorgeous high-budget historical period drama called the Taiga Drama, and this year's is to be about one of the most respected historical persons in recent history, Ryoma Sakamoto (1836-1867). Ryoma was a versatile "renaissance samurai" who was responsible for organizing the domains of Choshu and Satsuma (now Yamaguchi and Kagoshima Prefectures) to work together to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate and form a modern government centered around the Japanese Emperor, who had been nothing more than a figurehead ruler for a millennium or so. He knew that if Japan were to experience a protracted civil war, it might find itself colonized by the European powers of the age, and he cleverly engineered a nearly bloodless change of government. The reason my wife is happy is that the new drama about Ryoma's life stars Masaharu Fukuyama, the popular actor and singer who is one of her favorites.

I happened to catch an interesting TV show about Ryoma's life, which featured several television personalities sitting on the floor of the room Ryoma had been in when he was assassinated by Shinsengumi-allied samurai at the age of 32, which has become as famous to the Japanese as the Dallas Book Depository and the Grassy Knoll are in the U.S. They discussed many aspects of Ryoma's life, including his role as an "idea man," able to apply some of the ideas he learned from John Manjiro (a fisherman who was rescued by an American vessel and spent several years in the U.S.) to the strict world of the Edo Period Japan. He was fascinated with the technology of the West, and was the first samurai to wear Western-style boots instead of traditional geta sandals, and he also carried a Smith & Wesson pistol, as innovative a gadget in his age as the iPhone is today. He's also credited with founding Japan's first modern corporation, a trading company that would eventually grow into the Mitsubishi conglomerate of companies. All around, a pretty amazong person, and worthy to be thought of as the George Washington of modern Japan.

The Kyoto inn where Ryoma was assassinated is part of history; Ryoma was famous for wearing western-style boots.