Friday, February 19, 2010

Stand up! Bow! Take your seat!

One way of making sense of Japan is through the concept of kata, a word which means "form" and which describes the standard patterns one must follow in martial arts, tea ceremony and so on, although the idea can be scaled up to describe just about any formal behavior seen in Japan. One morning I was preparing to meet my students at a school I'd just started teaching at. The moment I entered the room, I was shocked to see everyone stand at the same moment, bow to me, then sit down, while one student barked, "Kiritsu...rei...chakuseki!" ("Stand up! Bow! Be seated!") in military style. This is something that's done in school settings at the beginning of each lesson, a sign of respect to the teacher by the students, although I'd never witnessed it firsthand before. But just because Japan has this show of respect to teachers before a lesson, followed by thanking him in one voice at the end, it doesn't necessarily mean that real respect is happening. The bowing custom is a kata, a form that must be upheld, yet Japanese students will be just as happy to complain about a bad teacher when he's not around as any in the U.S.

Lessons in Japanese schools start with a stylized bow to the teacher.

Onsen Hot Springs Update

If you've read my random musings on Japan for any length of time, you'll know I'm no small fan of onsen (OWN-sen), those dreamy volcanic hot springs that are the setting for so many "fan service" anime episodes, and this is a good thing since there's not that much else to do in my home prefecture of Gunma. Every once in a while, though, I remember back to a time when I hadn't lived in Japan for 18 years and wasn't totally accustomed to getting into a steaming bath with 20 strange men around me. Visitors to Japan from the West might feel some nervousness at the idea of disrobing in front of people they don't know, but really nothing could be easier. Because everyone in the bath is naked, no one is -- it'd actually be more embarrassing to be the only one wearing clothes in a situation like that. You can always rely on the unfailing politeness of the Japanese, and the bath is no exception, and everyone has a towel to hide themselves with while moving from bath to bath, anyway. Finally, the Japanese don't draw the slightest connection between mere nudity and sex, which is to my thinking a very healthy hang-up not to have. So if you visit Japan at some time in the future, I hope you'll take the onsen plunge!

So how about it -- would you feel nervousness at the idea of getting naked in front of others to enter a hot spring? Considering the psychological torture that was taking showers after P.E. with the dumb jocks in junior high and high school, which was for me a major convergence point on becoming the professional nerd I am now, it's nothing but joy.

Disclaimer: real Japanese hot springs are not quite as fun as this. Almost, but not quite.

A New Dialect of Japanese: "Gaijin-ben."

Recently I talked about "fake dialects" of Japanese that are often heard in anime, which can add much to the personality of a given character. One example might be the "cat girl-speak" that almost any character with cat ears will use, adding nyan (Japanese for "meow") to the end of each sentence, although this linguistic construction is no more real than the unique version of Galactic Standard English that Yoda speaks. Another example of this kind of stylized pseudo-dialect could be called gaijin-ben, which is Japanese spoken with English-style intonation so that it sounds something like a foreigner speaking with an accent. Although this unique speech style is commonly used by a wide range of radio and TV personalities today, it's said to have been invented by famous DJ Katsuya Kobayashi, who is something of a hero to Japanese students of English since he managed to master the language here, without living abroad. Japanese people seem quite fond of the blending of English and Japanese that Mr. Kobayashi invented, and I believe this is related to the general positive impression nearly all Japanese have of English. After all, the first foreigner a Japanese person usually meets is an exuberant English teacher who plays games with them, and there seems to be a kind of warmth that's communicated by this unique speaking style.

Katsuya Kobayashi is a hero to Japanese ESL students.

Surprise Hit Products at J-List?

In a recent interview for the Geek Tragedy podcast, I was asked what product had been the biggest surprise hit. It was quite a difficult to answer, since we've been around so long and carry so many wacky items. Of course certain products have become legends at J-List, like the Hello Kitty massager Shoulder Massagers, or the iTunes prepaid cards, but there have been plenty of other items that took us by surprise. Once a customer asked us try to carry some of the Gatsby hair wax products for men on the site, and the next thing we knew we'd sold thousands of them. J-List carries a large selection of bento boxes, but we like to find fun bento accessories as well, and boy have our customers told us how much they love cute soy sauce bottles. Often a Japanese product will get talked about in the blogosphere, so we'll grab a dozen or so for the next update and see how they sell, but in the case of the Microwave Potato Chip maker, we ended up blowing out more than a thousand, and they're still going strong. Finally, we like to surprise our customers with kawaii things from Japan, and Sanrio usually comes through for us, with long-selling products like our Hello Kitty Toilet Paper and the Hello Kitty 3D Cookie Cutter.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Elementary of Anime Character Design

Anime and manga are extremely visual media which communicate strong emotions through meticulously designed characters. To make their creations more endearing to fans, it's common for artists to experiment with established themes while also trying to invent something new, kind of like the way Arby's creates a new roast beef sandwich starting with existing ingredients. A new character might sport ahoge (ah-ho-gey), a bit of "stupid hair" that's always sticking up like Saber, or those cute "twintails" seen on characters like Miku Hatsune or Kagami, or perhaps a variation of the basic hair ribbon, like Haruhi. Some characteristics might be two-dimensional representations of actual attributes Japanese people have, like Ranka Lee's crooked yaeba teeth, or an artist might add more fanciful elements to a character for no reason, such as horns or elfin ears. One visual feature I've been noticing more and more is nekoguchi, literally "cat mouth," which certain characters do to appear whimsical or playful. It's really weird when you see it for the first time, but it grows on you.

Each new anime character is a re-shuffling of previous visual elements into a new form.

Japanese Television Report: "Unbelievable!"

One Japanese TV show I watch every once in a while is "Unbelievable!" in which famed Japanese director and squeaking hammer wielder Takeshi Kitano shows a selection of video clips from around the world. Often they're the same kinds of videos that become popular on YouTube -- a forklift driver loses control and slams into a shelf, resulting in the entire warehouse coming down around his ears, stuff like that. At the end of the show, there's a mini-documentary of some miraculous news story, like the tale of a man who had a heart attack while walking with his dog, but the dog was able to drag the man home in time to save him. They also show crime videos from the U.S., some of which are amusing -- the guy who tried to break into a convenience store and ended up falling through the ceiling -- while others are just scary to watch, like sudden shoot-outs between police and fugitives. What I dislike about the show is the impression it tends to leave on Japanese viewers, who must conclude that America is an extremely dangerous place where most everyone owns a gun and crimes are committed regularly. Of course the reality is very different, but watching ten police crime videos back-to-back starts to make even me feel nervous.

Beat Takeshi discovers video from around the world that's "Unbelievable!"

Totoro to Star In Toy Story 3?

For the past few days the Interwebs have been buzzing about the new trailer for Toy Story 3, which features a brief cameo appearance by none than My Neighbor Totoro. I'm honestly not sure how to feel about this new development. On the one hand, it's nice to see Disney paying homage to Japan's most celebrated animator, who's brought us so many wonderful creations over the years. Still, I've been a fan of Japanese animation for three decades or more, and much of that time was spent trying to convince friends and relatives that every Disney work wasn't automatically better than every bit of animation from Japan. As Japanese anime culture gained influence during the 1990s, Disney had a bit of an identity crisis, trying to "beat" anime at its own game with horrible films like Atlantis (heavily inspired by Gainax's Nadia of the Mysterious Sea), and then there was that business with The Lion King taking more than a little inspiration from Osamu Tezuka's Jungle Emperor Leo (aka Kimba the White Lion). Somehow, having Totoro show up in an "official" Disney work seems to mark a turning point with the company, an acknowledgement that the animation of East and West are separate entities, but perfectly complementary to each other.

So what do you think about the Totoro cameo? I feel somewhat like finding out two old friends have been banging each other and hiding it from me. ^_^

Totoro makes a cameo in Toy Story 3.

Anime Cosplay @ J-List

At J-List, we love to bring you fun anime cosplay products. When we started carrying complete anime costumes last year, we were immediately pleased at the response, and we currently have dozens of excellent complete costume sets for both girls and guys on the site now, from Haruhi to K-On! to Touhou and more. We also stock fun anime cosplay accessories, like the iconic eye patch worn by Ayanami from Evangelion, or the traditional fox mask seen in Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni. We carry authentic school uniforms for guys and girls from the famous Matsukameya of Nagoya, custom sewn to your size, and we even have the classic Japanese school swimsuit. Finally, we have many awesome Japanese fashions like the Over Knee Socks, many of which can be seen on our Japanese Fashion Magazine & More page.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Slow Pace of Change in Japan

I love running a unique company like J-List, really I do, but there are certain frustrations that come with being a Japan-based company. Japan is an island nation in more ways than one, and whenever a new idea comes along, people will generally study it for 5-10 years before deciding if it's safe to accept. The Japanese prefer homegrown products to international open standards, which is why you can make a purchase at a convenience store by tapping your cell phone to a little plate, yet doing anything with international services like Paypal can be quite difficult. Web standards are also several years behind what's being done in the U.S. and Europe, and just as Adobe Flash is giving way to better technologies like Javascript and HTML5, it seems that more Japanese websites than ever are embracing laptop fan-revving Flash content. But the biggest frustration for me is the lack of support for RSS feeds on the Japanese web. RSS is an incredible technology that lets websites publish information in an XML feed that can be read by RSS-aware applications like Google Reader or most web browsers or email programs, allowing a J-List reader to follow, say, new products added to our bento category, or any product with the word "Hello Kitty" in its description and never miss anything. Since Japanese publishers each like to create their own information delivery system from scratch, it's always a challenge for us to find the products we want to carry on the site for you.

Although many modern tools exist here in Japan, content producers haven't started using them to their full potential.

More Fun with Japanese Naming Conventions

You wouldn't think that a simple concept like the names we use to address others could be a source for cultural confusion, but anything is possible in Japan, and the new Vanishment of Haruhi Suzumiya (which seems to be the more official title than Disappearance) movie offers a few interesting examples. When Kyon wakes up one day to find himself in a universe in which Haruhi doesn't exist, he searches high and low for her, eventually discovering that she attended a different high school in this new reality. When he finally finds her, he shouts out, "Haruhi!" but she's taken aback, as calling someone by their first name implies a close relationship yet she's only meeting him for the first time. Later, there's a scene in which Kyon is standing on a roof with Yuki Nagato, the "humanoid interface" created by the Data Integration Thought Entity. Despite the fact that Kyon always calls her by her last name ("Nagato..."), he suddenly says, "Yuki," and the audience gets a brief thrill that some new emotional event is about to happen to the two. But he was in fact commenting that it had started snowing, since yuki is also the word word for "snow" in Japan.

Even something as simple as how names work can be complex in Japanese.

Hello Kitty Goodness @ J-List

At J-List, we try to carrying a huge range of fun products from Japan, and that means surprising you with awesome Hello Kitty related items you can't find outside Japan. From the legendary Hello Kitty Vibrator Shoulder Massager (available in several colors) to Hello Kitty ear cleaners and training chopsticks, we always have something surprising for you. Like Japanese bento products? We have several popular Hello Kitty bento lunch boxes, as well as accessories like awesome onigiri shapers. You can make a sandwich that's shaped like Hello Kitty, as well as pancake or fried eggs in the famous shape. Finally, if you've ever noticed the school bags carried by your favorite anime character, we've got several awesome ones in stock.

My Trip to Tokyo

On Saturday I went down to Tokyo to attend an event held by stormtrooper-blogger Danny Choo. It was great fun to hob-nob with other Japan blogger types, some of whom I've known through email or Twitter but never met in meatspace, then spend some quality anime karaoke time in Akihabara with friends. On Sunday I bummed around Tokyo, hitting some of my favorite bookstores in Shinjuku and wandering around some random shops. When I decided to head across the Yamanote -- the famous loop line that runs around Tokyo -- I accidentally got in the "women's only" train car, which were set up a few years ago to allow women to commute to work without fear of being groped by Japan's famous chikan train perverts. It wasn't a problem for me to be there since the "women only" time is only during the peak commute hours, but it still felt odd to be sitting in the cute pink-decorated train car, like I'd entered a mysterious place where men were forbidden.
I wonder what the girls do when there are no guys on the train. Probably party it up, passing around alcohol, like in the old Eddie Murphy SNL skit.
Japanese cities have "women only" train cars, which are kind of weird to ride in as a guy.