Friday, March 12, 2010

450 Words on Why Japan is Pretty Good

I recently came across a blog post by an American who'd lived in Japan for several years, but who'd suddenly decided that he hated it here. Reading through his post in which he listed everything he disliked about Japan, I found myself nodding at some of the frustrations a foreigner can encounter here, from having more smokers around you than you may be used to (especially if you're from California like me) to the odd tendency of Japanese city planners to never put trash cans where you expect them to be. As great a country as Japan is, the fact that 90% of the people here are often on the same wavelength about things can present challenges to "outsiders" (what the word gaijin actually means), which is why you can find six brands of 4.3% milkfat milk at the store but sometimes no lowfat and never any skim milk -- the Japanese just love their milk as creamy as possible. So while my first response to his diatribe was to say "if he doesn't like Japan he should probably go home," I found could sympathize with some of his points.

On the other hand, living in a foreign country will always involve trade-offs, a fact I learned at the tender age of six when my family went to live in New Zealand for a year. For cultural reasons, the Japanese just aren't into the vegetarian lifestyle, and it can be hard to try to live completely free of animal products unless you're prepared to cook it all yourself. The writer mentioned that he felt pressured to drink alcohol at company parties, but in my experience ordering "oolong tea" is all the signal others need that you don't want them to pour beer for you. Sometimes the little cultural differences can seem irreconcilable, though: when I worked for my city in the role of Coordinator for International Relations (cool job title, eh?), I was taking over for a foreigner who'd left suddenly. One of his reasons for going home, I was told, was frustration that all the tea here contained caffeine, which his religion forbade, so he couldn't even have a cup of green tea while he worked. These days, any possible inconvenience one might feel about living in a homogenous country like Japan is totally countered by the vast store of convenience that is...the Internet. The ability to order English books from Amazon or keep my home stocked with American foods I may want to order through the Foreign Buyers' Club make Japan almost the perfect country, for me.

(The rant in question can be seen here. Warning, it's a long read.)

So what do you think?

Japan can seem "culturally inflexible" to outsiders. Would you like more tea?

Names in Japanese

Just about any aspect of Japan can provide an interesting cultural lesson, even names. In Japan, everyone has a family name and a given name, always listed with the family name first, although this doesn't apply for non-Japanese (e.g. I am still pii-taa pein in Japanese). Japanese never have middle names, but they understand the Western concept and sometimes choose exotic-sounding names for anime characters just for fun, like Louise Françoise De La Bamue Le Blanc De La Vallièr from Zero no Tsukaima. Japanese names may be written in hiragana or katakana, but the vast majority use kanji, and just as there are alternate spellings for English names, Japanese parents can choose between different kanji characters to capture just the right nuance they want for their baby. Names follow trends just like in the West, and sometimes names that sound strange to the ear will become popular. In case you're wondering, the top three names for boys this year are Hiroto, Shota and Ren; for girls, it's Rin, Sakura, and Hina.

(Another interesting note...the names Ren (Len) and Rin could be said to be Vocaloid-derived, although those characters use katakana and not kanji, and of course Shota has a special meaning in fandom. Japanese wouldn't think of this at all by the way, as the vowel is longer and the kanji is different. )

Studying how names work in Japanese is interesting.

Hello Kitty From Japan

J-List always has something kawaii from Japan for you, like the hard-to-find Hello Kitty products we carry. There are a lot of really nice "traditional" Hello Kitty items, like the chirimen tote bags we restocked today, and I really like the style of the Wagara Hello Kitty Bento Box, our most popular ever. We also stock fun bento related items, like a Hello Kitty furikake bottle and the popular Hello Kitty Training Chopsticks. You can browse all Hello Kitty items via this link, or click here to see the top 50 items ranked by popularity.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Academy Show, As Viewed from Japan

The Academy Awards ceremony is closely followed in Japan, where it's kind of a combination of the Kohaku Red-and-White music pageant held each New Year's Eve and the most important English lesson ever, as Japanese fans try to understand the words of their favorite stars directly. While my wife and I were watching this year's show, she remarked, "Everyone is saying such nice things about everyone else. Japanese people could never do that. We're not good at praising others." Her observation seemed to be an accurate one: for some reason in Japan, no matter how respected an individual might be in his community, there'll be a tendency for some people to want to tear him down, perhaps for the crime of rising above everyone else. You see this most acutely in politics -- the moment a new Prime Minister arrives on the scene, everyone starts actively working for his downfall -- but even in less visible situations, there's an odd tradition of Japanese refusing to unanimously unite behind a single individual, even if it's just for one night.

Jeff Bridges receives the Best Acceptance Speech Performed While Drunk Award.

Anime Thoughts: Yuri > Yaoi?

Getting into anime means exposing yourself to a world of new ideas, some of which might be potentially confusing at first. Like the tendency for animators to create stories about characters whose gender is not entirely set in stone, such as female characters pretending to be male for some reason, Ranma-esque characters who actually change their gender, and even classical examples like Lady Oscar from The Rose of Versailles, raised as a swordsman although she's a girl. One of hallmarks of 90s anime series like Evangelion or Gundam Wing was adding a strong yaoi element to the story, creating tension between male characters and exploiting the drama and comedy generated from that tension to bring in more fans. These days, it seems that anime with strong themes of yuri -- stories about girls infatuated with other girls -- have really taken over, with just about every mainstream show featuring these themes on some level. It's hard to say when the "yuri tipping point" was -- Maria is Watching Over Us, perhaps? -- but the seeds were planted back when fans started noticing something funny about Haruka and Michiru from Sailor Moon.

"Yuri" themes are increasingly present in anime these days. Which is fine with me.

Spotlight: the Queen's Blade Series

J-List carries dozens of fun products for fans of Queen's Blade, the popular anime series which started out as a book-based RPG called the Lost Worlds battle system. In addition to the awesome Queen's Blade artbooks -- and the sister publication Queen's Gate, with female fighters from other games, we carry dozens of figures from the series, including some with clothes that can be *ahem* "cast off." Another product I like a lot is the Queen's Blade Spiral Chaos game for PSP, a superb fighting game with all characters as well as the patented patented "Armor Damage System" which causes their clothes to fly off when they take damage. Stay classy, Japan!

The Great Tokyo Air Raid

Today is the 65th anniversary of the Great Tokyo Air Raid. On this day, 300 B-29 Superfortresses flying out of Guam dropped 2,000 tons of incendararies over the most densely-packed residential parts of Tokyo, causing 100,000 deaths, greater than from the individual atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nakasaki. It was a very sad event, the tragedy of which can be appreciated by watching the excellent Studio Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies, which I plan to watch with my kids tonight as part of their dual American/Japanese heritage. Note that the Touhou character in the picture below is saying, "Lucky Strike!!" This is related to an odd Japanese urban legend that the iconic Lucky Strike cigarette logo is supposed to represent the mushroom cloud of Hiroshima as seen from above. (The logo actually dates from 1917.) Interestingly, this common belief doesn't stop Japanese smokers from reaching for the brand, nor do Japanese artists consider it odd to draw cute moe art of the B-29 Superfortress, which presumably caused so much pain to the Japanese. (This kind of reminds me of Astro Boy's Japanese name of Tstsuwan Atom and his sister Uran, e.g. Uraniam.)
It speaks volumes that Japanese artists can create moe art like this.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Conscription for Japan?

I saw a blog post that said the out-of-favor Liberal Democratic Party was considering issuing a bill to create military conscription for 18-20 year olds along the lines of European countries or South Korea. It's a total fantasy, of course -- Japan's pacifist constitution (which America wrote) wouldn't allow it, and no one here would support such a suggestion -- but it was interesting to hear the idea being discussed. I've often thought that Japanese young people could do with two years of mandatory public service of some kind, for a couple of reasons. First, the country has an extreme lack of basic, reasonable patriotism that other countries take for granted, and even something as simple as singing the National Anthem becomes a major issue, with some teachers refusing to sing it at official events. Also, Japan suffers from what's known as heiwa-boke (hei-WA boh-keh), literally meaning "stupid from too much peace," which is what happens when you live in an extremely safe island country. Performing some kind of required public service -- perhaps a Peace Corps-like organization where individuals went overseas to help poorer countries -- would teach Japan's spoiled young people about the rest of the world, and they'd probably realize what a great country they live in.

Artist's impression of a Japanese person in a military uniform.

Apple and Japan

While Japan represents the second largest market for Apple's Macintosh computers, making headway here hasn't always been easy, which is reflected in the lower market share of about 3.5% in Japan compared with the current 7.5% in the U.S. Apple started selling Macs in the Japanese market way back in 1986, and I have un-fond memories of hacking my computer to work with kanji fonts while we waited a year for the Japanese version of System 7 "Kanjitalk" to be released. (OS X's support for every language on one install disc is a real win for multi-language users.) Despite Apple's lower market share numbers, it's interesting to see the impression Apple's designs make on other products. When the original iMac was introduced in 1998, Japan experienced a boom in iMac-colored products made of see-through plastic which the Japanese referred to as "skeleton," and for years there wasn't a product you couldn't find in Bondi Blue or Tangerine Orange. After a slow start, the iPhone has really begun to catch on here, grabbing 46% of the smartphone market and causing the popular boy-band SMAP to cancel their contract selling NTT Docomo's phones and switch to Softbank so they could sell the iPhone. Now, just about every product you can think of is copying the iPhone, from the new Canon IXUS camera with iPhone style finger gestures to a host of new candybar phones with iPhone app-style gimmicks built in, of course missing the whole point, since there's no flexible OS, no marketplace for apps, music stores that are so closed they make iTunes look Linux and so on.

Apple designs have a tendency to influence Japanese products.

Real Places in Anime

One of the first things I did after arriving in Japan in 1991 was head down to Shinjuku, Tokyo, the setting for so many awesome 80s anime series, where I basked in the glory of the giant Studio Alta TV from Megazone 23 then roamed Shunjuku station looking for the "XYZ" chalkboard from City Hunter. (I'm old school, I know.) This tendency for animators to increase realism by setting their stories in real places continues to this day, and if you're so inclined you can drive the mountain roads in Initial D (happily located in J-List's home prefecture of Gunma) or visit the beautiful Edo Period castle where the new film Summer Wars was based -- heck, you can even eat taiyaki while walking around the town in Osaka where the Kanon anime was "filmed." When anime fans found out that the school seen in K-On! was based on a real place -- the decommissioned Toyosato Elementary in Shiga Prefecture -- the school instantly became hallowed ground, and if you go there on a Sunday you can see dozens of other otaku on pilgrimages to show off their cool itasha anime cars. Allowing your location to be featured in a popular anime seems to be lucrative, as the Washinomiya Shrine from Lucky Star has discovered -- the limited goods the shrine sells have brought in millions of yen.

This leads to the question: where the hell is the Eve no Jikan cafe and how do I get there??

The places in your favorite anime series probably exist in real life.

Good Snacks from Japan

J-List always strives to be a peaceful island of Japanese pop culture in a complex world, but we also love to find interesting Japanese snacks for you. While we naturally carry all the exotic Japan Kit Kat and Pocky in Japan, like the outstanding Sakura Green Tea Kit Kat on the site right now. We love to sell wacky versions of foods that are familiar to you, like the heart-shaped Love Doritos or Kimchee Cheetos from FritoLay. Want to learn about Japan through candy? Then sample some of the Japan Food Drops, which let you taste amazing foods from around Japan. Finally, we've always sold the popular Calorie Mate cookie bars, and today we're posting one of my mother's favorite J-snacks, BalanceUp Healthy Diet Bars. You can browse all our Japanese snacks here, or see the top 50 organized on this page.