Friday, February 05, 2010

Sapporo Snow Festival

Today is the start of the Sapporo Snow Festival, the famous snow-sculpting event in which a dozen or so teams work to create beautiful masterpieces out of snow. This is the 60th anniversary of the festival, which got its start in 1950 when the city of Sapporo decided to turn several local snow sculpting competitions into a regular event, and everything just sort of snowballed from there (sorry). Different sculptures are created each year, and it's always fun to see what the will be made -- one group is making a giant Miku Hatsune Nendoroid this year, for example. During my days as a single gaijin I did a fair bit of hitchhiking around Japan, and I visited the city of Sapporo but not during the festival. I'd love to go see it properly sometime.

The 60th Sapporo Snow Festival is going on right now. Wish I were there.

Coming-of-Age Ceremony for Junior High School Students

My son turns fifteen this year, and in accordance with a Japanese custom I'd never heard of before, he'll be participating in a school ceremony called risshi-shiki, the Ceremony of Attending Manhood (also called Genpuku or Genbuku). It's a revival of an old tradition that goes back a millennium or so in which boys who had reached the minimum age of adulthood had their hair cut in the fashion of adults for the first time, and after that point they could be called to go to war and kill with a sword. In these modern times, it's become a ceremony where boys (and girls) stand up in front of their teachers and other students and declare their goals, what they want to do with their lives in the future. My son goes to a special experimental immersion school in which 50% of the classes are taught in English, so he has to give his speech twice, once in English and once in Japanese.

When I was fifteen and attending school in America, I never gave a thought about where my life would take me -- I was too busy playing AD&D and M.U.L.E. on my Atari 8-bit computer. Do you think this is a good way to get young people to think more seriously about the future?

A rissho-shiki ceremony is an opportunity to reflect on your personal goals.

Asashoryu Bows Out of the Dohyo

Japan's sumo world was rocked today by the announcement that Mongolian wrestler Asashoryu, the top-ranked yokozuna (Grand Champion) in the sport, would be retiring to take responsibility for an incident in which he got drunk and punched an employee at a drinking establishment. This was far from the only time the sumo star has been in trouble: he'd also been reprimanded for brawling with other wrestlers privately and was photographed playing soccer back home in Mongolia while he was supposed to be on medical leave for a back injury. One of the biggest problems with the wrestler, from the Japanese point of view, was that he lacked the hinkaku (dignity) that's expected in a person of that rank, yet Asashoryu refused to accept Japanese-style humility, often striking a "guts pose" after a tournament win and preferring a large Hawaiian shirt to his official sumo wrestler yukata while in public. Asashoryu was one of the strongest wrestlers the sport had ever seen, with an unprecedented 25 tournament victories in his 11-year career.

Asashoryu's name always makes me think of a Street Fighter special attack.

Wacky Subculture, Anime & Traditional Products from Japan

J-List sells a ton of unique and wacky products from Japan, which I like to dig through for you. We love all forms of Japanese subculture, and whenever something becomes popular on the Japanese Interwebs, we'll be there to offer products to you, like our excellent lineup of Touhou manga, figure and cosplay products, or our fun Yukkuri! T-shirt. The Japanese always have a knack for coming up with fun new ways to explore our obsessions, and products like our "3D" Mouse Pads, which provide just the right wrist support an otaku needs, or those Evangelion earphones. Finally, there's a lot of crossover between "wacky" and "traditional" in Japan, and we like to think our line of hachimaki headbands are a little bit of both.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Adventure of English

If you've been reading my twitter feed lately, you might have noticed me writing about an interesting BBC documentary I'd come across. Called The Adventure of English, the 8-part series follows the evolution of the English language from its early Anglo-Saxon roots, through centuries of refinement by the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare, and finally to its arrival as England's most famous export to the world during the Colonial Era. For a "language otaku" like myself, the show was awesome linguistic pr0n, and I loved every episode. One of the themes of English is how it was changed by other languages it came into contact with, especially after the Norman Invasion, which led to 300 years of rule by French-speaking kings and is the reason 50% of modern English words are French in origin. This mirrors another island nation I'm fond of. Japan also had a linguistic "invasion" in the form of kanji from China around the 6th century AD, which the Japanese adapted to their spoken language. Today, every kanji used in Japan has two basic readings, a Japanese one for the simpler concepts like mizu for "water" or sora for "sky," and a Chinese reading that's used to create more complex compound words such as suiso for "hydrogen" or and kuuatsu for "air pressure."

I enjoyed the BBC documentary on the history of English, but then I'm a "language otaku."

The Really Big Numbers of Avatar

The other day I was talking with my wife and daughter about an article I'd seen, which said the film Space Pocahontas Avatar had earned an unprecedented 2 billion dollars in ticket sales. "How much money is that?" my daughter asked, so I tried to tell her...then fell flat on my face. Numbers are notoriously difficult to work with in Japanese, since instead of the Arabic system that's based on the unit 1,000 they use the Chinese system which uses 10,000 (mahn) as a base unit, followed by oku which has a value of 100 million. Numbers themselves are exactly the same, of course, and a Japanese math book would have the same written formulas that a Western one would; it's the act of verbally expressing large numbers that's such a challenge. In the end, it took the three of us several minutes of intense discussion to figure how to express the number $2,000,000,000 properly in Japanese yen.

Which works better for you? I think I like the Disney-animated one best.

Setsubun: Out with devils, in with happiness!

Today is Setsubun, a fun day for anyone with kids in Japan. A remnant of a festival that took place on New Year's Eve during the old Lunar Calendar, it's a day when oni (devils) will be symbolically chased out of the house so that happiness can reign during the New Year. The father of the house will assume the role of a devil, wearing a paper mask that makes him look scary. When the devil attacks, the children pelt him with baked soybeans and chase him off, shouting Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi! ("Out with devils, in with happiness!"). When the devil is properly vanquished, everyone is supposed to eat their age in soybeans to help guarantee good health in the coming year, which is easy for a child of eight or so but more difficult for parents who are getting up there in years. Setsubun is also a day to visit your local Shinto shrine, where people gather to be pelted by soybeans thrown out into the crowd by sumo wrestlers and kabuki actors who have been invited to take part in the festivities.

Feb. 3rd is Setsubun, a day for casting devils out of your home.

Valentine's Day Sale on Dating-Sim Games

J-List is happy to announce a special Valentine's Day sale on all our dating-sim games, which are great fun to curl up with in front of a warm computer. Here's how it works: buy the outstanding game Bazooka Cafe, which includes the free Valentine Special bonus game, and we'll send you a $5 coupon via email for a future J-List purchase. Want to save even more? Add any other game(s) to your order and we'll send you another $5 coupon for each game. Buy a total of four games and get a coupon for a $20 coupon back, in addition to the automatic 15% discount for getting four titles. This offer is available for both download and shrinkwrapped package games costing $14.95 or more. Although have Bazooka Cafe? We'll still honor the $5-per-game credit for other titles you pick up. Click here for more info.

Monday, February 01, 2010

All Things in Life are Like Peter's Photoshop Job

The other day, I was rolling up my sleeves to start a Photoshop job, cutting out a large image so I could separate it from the background, which we find ourselves doing a lot around here. I'd gotten about five minutes into the work when suddenly the breaker went out, which caused my Mac to lose power along with all the other computers at J-List. I groaned at the prospect of starting my Photoshop job again, when Shingo (the guy who handles technical support for our dating-sim games) noticed what I was doing and said, "If you need that file with layers separated, I've got one in my computer." This was a classic example of the Japanese proverb ningen banji saiou-ga-uma (nin-gen BAHN-gee sai-OH ga oo-mah), meaning "All things in life are like Sai's horse." This refers to an old Chinese story about a man named Sai whose horse ran away, causing everyone to be sympathetic about his bad luck. But the horse returned soon with another horse in tow, so it turned out to be good luck. Then Sai's son fell off the new horse and broke his leg, which was bad luck -- although because of his injury, he didn't need to go off to war when his village was called to fight, so it was good luck. The moral of the story is, when something good or bad happens, no one can say for sure how it will be in the end.

One of the many tidbits of wisdom from China.

Traditional Japanese Candy & Snacks from the Showa Period

J-List sells a lot of fun Japanese snacks, from Pocky to Meltykiss to the amazing Japan Kit Kat. We also go out of our way to carry many types of traditional candy from the Showa Period, called dagashi in Japanese. These traditional Japanese sweets are loads of fun for Japanophiles, since everything is so mysterious and old-fashioned, yet delicious. The most popular of all these mysterious Japanese candies has to be Kompeito, the star-shaped candies seen in the animated film Spirited Away, or perhaps the fun Bubble Ball fizzing ramune candies. I love the sweet Mochi Candy which is very chewy and comes in several flavors, as well as Bontan Ame, candy that comes in a wrapper made of rice, so you can eat it wrapper and all. Morinaga's Black Sugar caramels are a solid hit with J-List customers, as are the legendary Sakuma Drops, seen in Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies, which have spawned an interesting line of other "drops" candies. Finally, Felix the Cat bubblegum is one of the most popular products we've ever carried. Best of all, these traditional candies from Japan are often very inexpensive, so you can try a bunch of different ones and see which you like.

Great Service in Japan

The tradition of retail establishments offering excellent service to customers is one of my favorite aspects of Japan, and if I were in the restaurant business I'd look to see what ideas I could import. Like the excellent custom of handing out hot towels called oshibori to customers who've just sat down to order -- there's nothing that makes you feel positive about a restaurant like cleaning your hands (and face, although it's bad manners) with a steaming hot towel. Another innovation I'm a fan of are electronic buttons you press when you're ready to order. The staff of the restaurant can see your table number light up on a board, and they instantly appear. Another idea which might have potential in urban areas are restaurant ticket vending machines. If you want to order, say, a bowl of ramen, you insert your money into the machine and press the button, getting a ticket that you give to the cook. All monetary transactions are done by the vending machine, so the restaurant doesn't need staff at a cash register, allowing the cost of the meals to be lowered.

(By the way, the Japanese achieve this higher level of service without ever taking tips, and in fact a Japanese person would be confused and insulted if you tipped them for doing their jobs. What an amazing country this is!)

I love the steaming hot oshibori towels they give you in restaurants.

Jobs for Gaijin in Japan

There are certain jobs in Japan that are naturally better filled by foreigners, such as employees in certain ethnic restaurants, the cast members at Tokyo Disneyland, or a minister who performs Western-style wedding ceremonies. Teaching English as a Second Language is another job best done by a native speaker, and there are many expats working here as English conversation teachers or other types of language instructor. By its very nature, translation from one language to another goes more smoothly if the person doing the translating speaks the target language natively, which provides another career path for foreigners wanting to work in Japan. This rule isn't strictly followed however, and there are some who work as proofreaders or "rewriters," essentially cleaning up English translations made by non-native speakers. Before I started J-List I worked for my city as a "Facilitator of Internationalization," essentially being a bridge between the foreign community and the city government, and I did a fair bit of this kind of clean-up work. Once I even proofread a translation done by an American who'd lived here since the 60s, so long in fact that his English needed to be checked for errors afterwards. I wonder if I'll ever get like that? (We have some interesting guidebooks for living and working in Japan, by the way.)

It's considered very "authentic" to have a wedding performed by a gaijin minister.