Friday, January 22, 2010

J-List New Year's Party 2010

I'm rushing to finish this update a little early since tonight we're having the J-List shinnen-kai, or New Year's Party. Similar to the bonen-kai or "Forget the Year Party" held at the end of the year, a Japanese-style New Year's Party is an opportunity for companies or other groups to officially mark the start of a new year while engaging in "nomunication," that is, communication while getting smashed. We've reserved a room at a local izakaya, a traditional bar-restaurant that serves delicious food in addition to frosty mugs of beer and bottles of hot sake. It'll be a time to relax while we eat and drink, and also to re-dedicate ourselves to the important work of being a bridge of wacky popular culture between Japan and the rest of the world. Everyone have an awesome weekend and enjoy the update!

And after we eat, drink and be merry, we'll hit the karaoke box!

Patriotism in Japan

I've written before about how Japan isn't a very patriotic place, and lacks some of the basic concepts of national pride that people in the United States take for granted. There's no Japanese version of the Fourth of July or Memorial Day or that story about George Washington cutting down a cherry tree, and the national flag of Japan is associated with right-wing political extremists often enough that no one would fly it openly, as we do in the U.S. Any visit by a government official to the local version of Arlington National Cemetery -- the infamous Yasukuni Shrine -- causes protests from foreign governments because the bones of Japan's war criminals are interred there. When we went to go to the U.S. in December, my wife realized she'd misplaced our son's passport, so we hurried to the embassy in Tokyo and they made us a new one while we waited. (Which was awesome of them by the way -- no Japanese government office would be so understanding.) The passport we got was one of the new uber-patriotic ones, with images of bald eagles soaring from sea to shining sea in the rockets' red glare. My wife was amazed at the imagery, which would be unthinkable in Japan.

Japan lacks the basic symbology of normal patriotism that Americans take for granted.

Fun with Google: "Why is Japan so..."

It's hard to think of a company that's changed our lives over the past decade more than Google. In their quest to organize the world's information, they added at least ten points to everyone's I.Q. and gave us access to a global world brain that few but the most foresighted science fiction writers could have imagined. It's fun to hit the Google website and see what pops up in the search box when you start to type something, and in the case of Japan, the searches people are making are quite cool to see. While some of the results are unflattering -- why is Japan so weird and perverted? I have no idea what you're talking about -- most of them indicate that Japan is viewed as a special country in the world, one that's clean and safe and possessing an excess of "Gross National Cool." I've always been amazed at the large cultural impact Japan has had on the world relative to its size, and how some of the most mundane things become innately cool when they're associated with Japan.

So, what do you think? Why is Japan viewed as such a cool country by the rest of the world? Is it Japan's status as an island nation? (England, too, has projected an incredible amount of influence into the world over the centuries.) Related to the "mystery" we perceive when something is very complex and different? The fact that Japan closed itself to outside contact for 250 years?

Why is Japan so weird/successful/cool? Gugure! (that's "Google it!" in Japanese).

Japanese Magazines with Free Stuff Inside

One of the coolest trends in monthly magazines is giving freebees to readers, called omake (oh-mah-kay), and many of the magazines J-List sells via our convenient revolving monthly subscription service give awesome free stuff. One of our favorites is Megami Magazine, which is apparently on a mission to bankrupt itself by giving 25+ free posters in each issue, all with awesome original art. Then there are manga or moe magazines that give you free figures and keychains and pencil boards, like Dengeki Maoh/Daioh/G's or Shonen Ace. Fashion magazines for guys and girls get in on the fun too, and you can get some great free stuff sent with each issue of Mini or SMART and S Cawaii. Men's magazines get into the act as well, and these have been so popular it's been hard for us to keep them in stock. Why not consider subscribing to some of Japan's best magazines now through J-List? You never need to pay in advance and you can cancel or switch magazines at any time.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Japan and Inefficiency

I happened to see a report that put Japan's gross domestic product per capita -- the amount of goods and services that each person produces over the course of a year -- at $38.371 in 2008, which ranked it 19th among industrial nations. While some of this is of course related to the weak economy and currency changes, it's also indicative of one of the basic themes of Japan as a whole: inefficiency. When you drive past road construction, there are sure to be several men whose job it is to stand by the road with orange flashlights, ostensibly directing traffic even though everyone ignores them. When individuals or businesses need to send money to someone, you can't mail a check as they don't exist here; instead, you go to the bank and execute a manual bank transfer (furikomi), paying a $6 fee to the bank for this privilege. And amazingly, an employee of NHK still comes around to our house every month to pick up the 2000 yen viewing fee (equivalent to the license fee for the BBC). rather than having it paid automatically the mail. In case you were wondering, the top five countries were Luxembourg, Norway, Singapore, the United States and Ireland.

Japan's efficient parking ojisans start another busy day.

Are You Ready for Valentine's Day?

Valentine's Day is just around the corner. Why not celebrate it like the Japanese do? In Japan, women give chocolate to their boyfriends, husbands or bosses to express their feelings of love or gratitude, and speaking from experience, chocolate received on February 14 is the most delicious in the world. Right now J-List is loaded with good chocolate products, from classics like Meltykiss, Japan Kit Kat and Pocky to the pre-packaged gift chocolates we're posting today. We even have handy wrappers and molds for making cool handmade chocolate, to say nothing of all those awesome Mousse-chan Paper Clay molds, which could be used to create awesome chocolates in any shape you like.

Japan and the U.S. Celebrate 50 Years of Cooperation

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the U.S. and Japan, which outlines the military arrangement between the two nations. Although it's hard to think of two countries that have had a closer and more successful relationship than the United States and Japan over the past five decades, some new challenges have cropped up recently. Prime Minister Hatoyama's government is trying to negotiate moving the large Futenma air base in Okinawa somewhere else, perhaps to Guam, which is likely to be a logistical nightmare for the U.S. military. The government recently ended its refueling mission for U.S. warships in the Indian Ocean, a condition set by the minority Social Democratic Party which makes up part of the current ruling coalition, and there's currently a lot of discussion about what would happen if China offers to take over the refueling instead. Japan could find itself passed by in world affairs, with less influence in the future.

The U.S.-Japan security treaty turns 50 years old.

Social Insecurity

How would you feel if the government lost your Social Security records, so that years of work and payments into the pension system were effectively erased? That's exactly what happened in Japan, and the government is still cleaning up the mess. During the 1970s, the records of thousands of Japanese workers went missing as they were being computerized. Part of the problem was the inherent vagueness of the Japanese language, with its complex kanji names that can be pronounced in different ways, and the lack of a standard taxpayer ID number like Social Security numbers in the U.S. added to the confusion. Anger over the pension errors was a contributing factor in the defeat of the Liberal Democratic Party last year, as voters looked for payback from politicians. I was surprised to find that I, too, was a victim of the great Disappearing Pension Payment Problem, and four years I'd spent working as a teacher were not recorded properly. Fortunately I was able to get the situation straightened out okay.

The Japanese government has had to scramble to find lost pension payments.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Gaijin Shock

The other day I was shopping in a supermarket when I suddenly came face to face with two girls around 5-6 years of age who had been browsing the Pocky aisle together. Their eyes got wide at the unexpected sight of a big gaijin in the store, and there were a few seconds of silence, which I dispelled by waving my hand at them with a friendly "Hello." Whenever I meet Japanese kids I take great care to make a good impression, since I know that I'm often the first non-Japanese they're encountering in this rural part of Japan, and doing anything they perceived as scary might make them mistrustful of foreigners in the future. Usually it works out well, but every once in a while a baby will decide to cry his head off when approached by this strange-looking blonde-haired monster.

Early foreigners in Japan. Man I'd have loved to see the country back then.

If English Is Your Native Language, Hug Your Parents Now

If English is your native language, make sure you give your parents a big hug next time you see them: they saved you from the horror of learning English as a second language. The complexity of English seems custom-made to vex poor Japanese ESL learners like my wife, who struggles with the language even after all these years. Once someone in the U.S. told her, "You're from Japan? Neat!" and she replied, "No, I have a job" -- she'd confused the normal English adjective with NEET, as in Japan's legendary hikikomori shut-ins. Then there was the time we were in the drive-thru and she saw the CLEARANCE sign, indicating the maximum height of cars that could pass through, and she wondered if McDonald's was allowed to sell old food at discounted "clearance" prices like that. The combination of fewer sounds in Japanese compared with English and the lack of plurals makes it easy to confuse the word "chopsticks" with ChapStick lip balm, and there's an enormous potential for L/R confusion, like the time she asked for some "gross" lipstick. Of course, I've managed to put my foot in my mouth in Japanese plenty of times, too, like the time I confused hinan (to evacuate, to escape) and hinin (to use contraceptive) when talking with a pretty girl (facepalm).

So to any readers who didn't learn English as your first language, how hard was it? Do the Japanese inherently have more difficulty with it or is it maddening for everyone?

English is a very difficult language for Japanese to master.

In Japan, America Equals "BIG"

McDonald's Japan has been marketing itself in unique ways recently, such as using a parody of a gaijin called Mr. James in its commercials, which amused Japanese and angered some foreigners and generally succeeded at getting people talking about the company's quasi-food products. Their newest idea is the Big America Burger series, four giant hamburgers named after different parts of the U.S. The current offering is the mighty Texas Burger loaded with barbecue sauce and bacon, soon to be followed by the New York Burger, the California Burger, and exotic Hawaiian Burger. The key idea is BIG, since the company knows from its past successes that Japanese consumers will buy oversized hamburgers, and it's only natural to tie this concept to America itself. The Japanese perception of United States is that everything is big, from houses to cars and various body parts, and every foreigner is automatically assumed to be taller than every Japanese by default. Back in my ESL days I'd visit someone's home to teach their kids, and the mothers would apologize for their "small house," which I always found amusing since the house was often larger than mine back in San Diego.

The Japanese associate America with "BIG."

Random Wacky Products at J-List

J-List loves being a bridge between Japan and the rest of the world and finding wacky items for our customers, like the popular Banana Carrying Case we sell , or those awesome Japanese Sandwich Makers, which turn a boring sandwich into something much cooler. Often we find things no one in the world expected to find when they got out of bed, like Lucky Cat toilet paper or the awesome Yura Yura Clover toys. Our Takoyaki Maker was so popular that customers started asking for a Taiyaki Maker for making those delicious fish-shaped sweets with pancake batter, and now we've got two different ones in stock. Finally, ever since those Star Wars chopsticks came out I haven't used any others. They're the most enjoyable chopsticks I've ever held in my hand.