Friday, January 15, 2010

Yakudoshi, my Year of Calamity

This morning my wife walked into my office with a beautifully ornate wooden name plate, which she placed on top of my bookshelf. This year I turn 42 years old, so 2010 is my yakudoshi, my unlucky "year of calamity" according to a complex Japanese belief system that crossed over from China centuries ago, and my wife had asked a Buddhist temple that her relatives run to say special bad luck-removing prayers for me, writing my name on the wooden talisman. According to this yakudoshi system, the ages of 25, 42 and 61 (for men) and 19, 33 and 37 (for women) are extremely unlucky, and you should avoid doing certain things like building a house, starting a business or otherwise making a major change in your life during these years. (The years before and after each unlucky year are also somewhat unlucky.) Of course, I privately laugh at some of the superstitions the Japanese come up with, like don't whistle at night or you'll be attacked by snakes, or if three people appear in a photograph together, the one in the middle will die young. But the yakudoshi belief is pretty much "the" primary superstition in Japan, held by every Japanese I've met, so just to be on the safe side, I'll avoid building any houses this year.

You can remove bad luck at a Buddhist temple, for a small fee.

English as a Secret Code in Japan

There are many skills a foreigner needs if he wants to live in Japan, like how to say biiru o kudasai (beer, please) and hen na gaijin desu (I'm a strange foreigner), two of the first phrases you learn here for some reason. Learning to to kneel on tatami mats for hours on end with your legs not falling asleep is helpful, too. Another skill that comes in handy is the ability to speak extra-difficult English, which allows you to communicate with other native speakers without Japanese understanding. If you wanted to make a comment on how cute a certain girl is but keep her from letting on, you might say "I am quite infatuated with the member of the fairer gender standing adjacent to you." The trouble is, you never know for sure how good their English might be. Once in a KFC, I made a comment to a friend about how the word "Colonel" -- kaanaru as the Japanese say it -- sounded like the English word "carnal." Imagine my surprise when the Japanese girl at the register said "Yes, I've often thought that" to me in perfect English (she'd grown up in Los Angeles). Another good way to speak in code around Japanese people is to use Pig Latin, which will scramble any sentence to incomprehensibility in short order. When I taught it to my son, he thought it was the coolest thing in the world, and soon had all his friends speaking it.

You never know when someone will speak really good English in Japan.

Japan and Earthquakes

The world is in shock over the destruction from the terrible earthquake in Haiti, and the Japanese media has been covering the tragedy closely. Being one of the most volcanically active countries in the world, Japan is no stranger to earthquakes, and here small to medium quakes happen all the time, as my knocked-over Star Wars figure collection can attest. This Sunday happens to mark the 15th anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, the terrible 7.3 magnitude quake which shook Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto back in 1995. Because the Kansai area usually has less seismic activity than Tokyo, the earthquake safety codes were less strict, which caused a horrible amount of damage and the loss of more than 5000 lives. Our prayers go out to everyone affected by this terrible new tragedy...

Earthquake-prone Japan definitely feels Haiti's pain right now.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Haircuts, Hot Springs and Japanese Numbers

The other day I took some time off to hit one of the onsen hot springs located near J-List. My hair had gotten a bit long, so I opted for Yasuragi no Yu ("Hot Water of Tranquility") because it has a barber shop located on the premises, and I consider getting your hair cut then taking a long bath immediately afterwards to be the pinnacle of human civilization. I was pleased to see that they were having a "thank you sale," lowering the admission price of 500 yen down to 390 yen. The number 390 wasn't just a random number they'd come up with -- the pronunciation of the English words "thank you" are rendered as san kyu in Japanese, which happens to correspond to the numbers 3 and 9, forever linking these concepts in the minds of Japanese speakers. There are some other numbers that have special meanings, too. The number 29 sounds like the word niku meaning "meat," and if you go to a Korean BBQ restaurant on the 29th day of the month you can expect a discount. Similarly, the sound of a dog barking is wan wan! which is also how the number "one" is pronounced, and as a result, it's not hard to find advertisements of a dog holding up his finger, boasting about being "number one."

These onsen style public baths are everywhere in my city, and visit once a week or so.

Smart Companies Embrace Japan's Otaku Culture

Otaku culture is fast becoming the mainstream culture of Japan, and any company that wants to succeed at selling products to the country's multitude of plugged-in young people needs to understand this fact. Some American companies have done surprisingly well in this area, showing that they grok Japan's obsessive popular culture, or at least have sense enough not to interfere when some new meme appears on the Interwebs. Amazon established itself early on as a source for otaku culture, even open to carrying some doujinshi, and McDonald's looks the other way as Japanese artists create bizarre parodies of Ronald McDonald on Pixiv. Apple has an extensive selection of anime music [iTunes link] on the iTunes Japan store (iTunes prepaid cards are here), since the people most likely to embrace new technology also tend to be interested in anime. Microsoft even commissioned an official "OS-tan" mascot character for Windows 7, known as Nanami Madobe. Kawaii?

Smart companies learn to embrace Japan's otaku culture.

The Rise of Cheap "Fast Fashion"

The current economic hard times are bringing some changes to Japan, especially in the area of fashion. In the past, the world's most famous brands enjoyed a loyal following from Japanese consumers, who happily wrapped themselves in the latest offerings from Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada. With Japan's export-dependant economy on the rocks, though, many customers have shifted away from these famous brands, embracing the new generation of more affordable "fast fashion" -- the fast food of fashion, meaning inexpensive casual clothing. As a result, brands like Versace are pulling out of Japan while upstarts like Forever 21, Zara and H&M are moving up, even (in the case of Gap clone Uniqlo) into the posh Ginza district.

Cheap clothing brands like Uniqlo are booming these days.

Popular Magazine Subscriptions from Japan

When J-List started our popular "Reserve Subscription" magazine service a decade ago, we had no idea how popular it would become with our customers. You can get just about any magazine from Japan using this service, and since each issue is charged monthly, you never need to pre-pay and can quit at any time. We've got popular anime magazines (Newtype), magazines loaded with posters (Megami Magazine), magazines for game and anime fans (Comptiq, Dengeki G'z), magazines for cosplay culture (Goth-Loli Bible, Cosmode), magazines that teach you Japanese (Hiragana Times), and of course, a whole slew of great fashion mags. Many come with cool free stuff in each issue, such as figures, pencil boards and more. Click here to browse all our magazine subscriptions, or here to view the top 50 this month.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Driving in Optimistic America

Whenever we go to the U.S. for a visit, it seems we discover new differences between our two home countries, and this time we learned that driving habits you pick up in one country can be difficult to discard in another. I'm not talking about driving on the opposite side of the street -- that's not that difficult, as long as you take it slow and go the same way as the other cars on the road. It's other things, like the polite Japanese custom of flashing the emergency lights twice to say "thank you" to a car that's just let you in in front of them, something that isn't done in California, though we found ourselves doing it anyway. Japan's politeness behind the wheel extends to the car's horn, and I found myself actively avoiding the Japanese "short greeting beep" since it might get me dirty looks in the U.S., where honking the horn is usually done in anger. In Japan, all cars are required to stop for three seconds before driving over railroad tracks, and it felt odd to zoom over them without stopping in the U.S. Some driving customs are just too dangerous to bring over, though, like the habit of turning off one's headlights at a stoplight to keep from blinding the person across the intersection from you. I opted to be rude and keep my headlights on.

While in the U.S., we happened to pass by a car with a custom license plate that read SKY LMMT. "That probably stands for 'the sky is the limit,'" I explained, and my Japanese wife observed that this was a very "American" sentiment to have on a license place. I've often been told by Japanese that their impression of Americans is that we're always positive and optimistic about things, an idea which (I've been told) goes back to the days after World War II, when the confidant, can-do attitudes of the American soldiers helped lift the spirits of the defeated Japanese. I encountered the "optimism gap" between Japan and America back in 1996 when I announced to my wife that I wanted to quit my English teaching job and do something with this new thing called the Internet. I knew in my heart that a company selling random and wacky things directly from Japan would be a great business, but the reaction from my Japanese family (especially my conservative mother-in-law) wasn't exactly positive, and I had to work hard to change their minds. So what do you think? Are the Japanese correct in viewing Americans as optimistic, positive people?

Seen from Japan, Americans are very optimistic and positive-minded.

Valentine's Day is Coming!

Valentine's Day is right around the corner, and it's a great time to think about picking up some delicious chocolate products from Japan. J-List stocks hundreds of fun and wacky Japanese snack items, from various flavors of Japan Kit Kat to the awesomeness of Meiji Meltykiss to all the new 2010 flavors of Pocky and new snacks that are fun to discover. Remember, too, that "chocolate season" won't last forever: when the weather starts warm up, we are forced to remove all chocolate from the site to keep it from becoming so much Meltykiss. Click here to see all the snack items we carry, or here to view the top 50 food items on J-List this week.

Coming-of-Age Day in Japan

Today is a holiday in Japan, Seijin-no-hi, or Coming of Age Day, when everyone who turns 20 years old this year is officially recognized as an adult and a full-fledged member of society. Venture into any Japanese city right now and you'll see hundreds of young people decked out in beautiful kimonos and smart new suits, greeting each other and taking group photos together. In Japan, the official age of adulthood is 20 (as commemorated in our wacky "You Must Be 20 Years Old to Purchase Tobacco and Alcohol" T-shirt), and today is a special day to endure long speeches by elderly community leaders, have lunch with friends, then maybe go drinking. For parents it's a proud day, too, and doting fathers are all too happy to plunk down $5000 for a gorgeous kimono that their daughters will in all likelihood wear only once. In the past, Coming of Age Day was always held on January 15, even if that day fell on a weekend, but a few years ago the Japanese government began its "Happy Monday" initiative, which moved these holidays to the nearest Monday.

Sadly, there are fewer new adults in Japan than ever before: just 54,100, a drop of 2794 people from last year due to the low birth rate.

Coming of Age Day is a great time to catch up with old friends while wearing a kimono.