Friday, March 19, 2010

English Words the Japanese Use

The Japanese use a great number of English words in their daily speech, often changing their nuances to fit a slightly different meaning. If you mention you've met a pretty girl, A Japanese person might tell you to "attack" her, since this English word always means "to try hard to win someone's love," which might cause some confusion. In the Macross Frontier movie, Sheryl Nome's concert is interrupted by an invasion of aliens known as Vajra, so a week later she plans a "revenge" concert, since this word means "a second chance to make up for a previous failure" and not its wider meaning of vengeance. The English word "tension" means something like "happy and excited" in Japanese rather than stressed or nervous, so when Kanako sings "High tension!" in the opening credits to the Maria Holic anime, she's talking about having a great time, not expressing her shock at discovering that the prettiest girl in the school is really a guy (e.g. a "trap").
Maria Holic is a Zetsubou Sensei + Maria is Watching Us + nosebleeds + GOD OH GOD.

Jonny Quest, Censorship and Lame-ification

The other day I was reading through random Wikipedia articles and I happened across the entry on Jonny Quest. For our younger readers, this was an animated adventure series broadcast in 1964-'65 that followed the adventures of 11-year-old Jonny, his government scientist father, bodyguard/tutor Race Bannon and Hadji from India. The show was incredibly bad-ass considering it was made by Hanna-Barbera, with hardcore sci-fi themes and plenty of international espionage, and in the pre-anime era it was just about the coolest thing on. I was surprised to read that when the show (which originally ran during prime time) was moved to the Saturday morning time slot, it was decried by parents' groups as "the epitome of what's wrong with cartoons" because it showed on-screen deaths, murder attempts and dangerous situations, and the violence was removed. I had to laugh at that, since to me, Jonny Quest was everything that was right with animation at the time, with stories that engaged and excited me without insulting my intelligence just because I was a kid. What would those critics say today if they knew we'd be watching awesome shows like Code Geass or Fullmetal Alchemist, which use violence as a tool to tell compelling stories that can be appreciated by a wider range of viewers, including many who would have watched Jonny Quest. A large part of the reason anime has been embraced so totally by young people over the last two decades is busy-body adults insisting that everything we watch be be sterilized -- the idea that someone's kids right now are sewing Gothic Lolita outfits and reading Touhou doujinshi becuase they didn't do enough to resist the lame-ification of American animation is very ironic to me.
Jonny Quest was a show that was ahead of its time, whose villains included a Nazi war criminal.

Happy Sarin Gas Attack Anniversary

Saturday marks the 15th anniversary of the sarin nerve gas attacks in Tokyo, one of the most bizarre and tragic domestic terrorist attacks ever. A dangerous religious cult called Aum Shinrikyo (usually translated as "Supreme Truth"), which combined elements of Christianity, Buddhism, yoga meditation and (surprisingly) the Foundation Trilogy of science fiction novels by Isaac Asimov, released sarin gas into Tokyo's subways causing twelve deaths and 54 serious injuries. Cult founder Shoko Asahara (the long-hared scary dude) and his fellow leaders assigned themselves lofty titles like "Prime Minister of Japan" and "Minister of Defense" and actively plotted the overthrow of the Japanese government. The events highlighted just how ineffectual Japan's police can be when they try. When a lawyer named Sakamoto who'd been investigating the cult mysteriously disappeared with his family in 1989, they investigated but couldn't find any verifiable link between the cult and the murder, despite the massive motive. In 1994, the Aum cult did a "test run" of the sarin nerve gas in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, killing eight and injuring 200. The police accused the husband of one of the women who'd been put in a coma by the gas because he happened to have a little knowledge of chemistry, rather than find the actual culprits before more people could be killed.
The Aum cult even made an anime to brainwash its followers. This is a Doraemon parody of it that I like better.

Featured stuff: Various Random Products

J-List has so many fun products from Japan, it can be a challenge for me to pick items to highlight in this space. Some favorites of mine include the Traditional Food Drops candies, especially the new line with beautiful ukiyoe art on the packaging. If you're ever looking for a really cute sponge, we recommend the Kawaii Onigiri Sponge, which our customers just love. J-List sells Pocky (at least until chocolate is removed in preparation for the summer -- have you ordered what you need?), and we also sell awesome Pocky Chopsticks that look like the real thing. Finally, if you haven't browsed our fine Hello Kitty products in a while, check out some of our top sellers like the Silicone Muffin Maker.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Thoughts on Competition in Education, and Kit Kat

Since Japan has very little in the way of natural resources, education becomes one of the most important factors in pushing the country forward. While I'm not always happy with the educational system here in Japan, I can say that the Japanese people pour a lot of passion into educating their kids, at least more than I observed growing up in California. One way Japan gets better results is by getting students to be competitive about their studies. In most junior high and high schools, the ranking for the top 10-20 students in a class are displayed for all to see, and I've seen my son put in extra effort specifically because he wanted to get a higher rank than his rival in the class. I made use of competition when preparing for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, too: I was studying with a Chinese friend of mine, and I made up my mind that I was going to get a higher score on the test than her, which is no small task for a "white boy" gaijin. (Chinese people can read all Japanese kanji for "free" even though the pronunciations for kanji and the meanings of English loan words confuse them.) My rivalry as motivational tool worked great, and I beat her score by ten points.

Another way Japan gets kids to be more serious about their studies is the juken or "entrance exam" system, which requires students to prepare for a year or more for a single test that will determine what university they go to...or what high school. Yes, since high school is not compulsory in Japan, the high school system acts like a miniature version of the university system, with students competing to get into different high schools depending on their academic level and personal goals. My son has set his sights on a science-centric high school which is quite difficult for him, which means he'll be studying his butt off to prepare for the test next February. It's actually quite a big change for our family, as I almost never get to see my son (who is just 14) any more, plus we have to drive 30 km to the neighboring city to pick him up. While I'm proud of him for setting a goal for himself and working towards it, I'm kind of sad that I can't do fun stuff with my son as much. When students go off to take their important tests, mothers will give them a box of Kit Kat, which sounds similar to kitto katsu, which means "you will surely win" in Japanese.
Nestle's Kit Kat has become the official snack of test-takers in Japan, which the company is all too happy to exploit.

Wabi and Sabi is not a Sushi Condiment

One way to make sense of Japan is by understanding the concepts of wabi and sabi, two words which sum up much of what makes Japan special to outsiders. These ideas -- which are closely tied to the Japanese tea ceremony -- are a bit hard to pin down in English. Wabi essentially means sober refinement or the beauty that can be found in simplicity and imperfection, while sabi is the austere serenity that comes with the passage of time, allowing us to appreciate how an object has aged. Although they sound like concepts only Zen Buddhist monks would concern themselves with, they come up in daily speech surprisingly often, like when Yasu and I were admiring the outside of an old abandoned house built during the Showa Period, and he said, "Isn't this house cool? It's really wabi-sabi!" The Japanese fascination with haikyo, or the ruins of our supposedly modern age, is definitely linked to this. I often see a tendency for stories in Japanese film and anime to follow this simpler "less is more" aesthetic view, like Eve no Jikan, an anime about a coffee shop where humans and robots can interact as equals, which has no plot to speak of other than the interesting characters we meet there. Another example might be the "Endless Eight" arc in season two of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, in which Haruhi (who is a God) wishes summer would never end, and so the last week of summer repeats over and over again...for a total of 15,532 times (although we only see eight of these repetitions). While many fans outside of Japan were angry about having to watch the same events eight times, albeit with entirely new animation and visual design for each episode, the avante-garde concept was somewhat better received by fans here in Japan.
Poor Yuki had to relive the same week 15,532 times -- I feel so sorry for her..

Cool Traditional Stuff @ J-List

J-List considers ourselves a "Wonderful Toybox of Things from Japan" that mirrors everything that's cool about Japan, and in addition to toys, anime figures, magazines, artbooks and other products, we carry plenty of traditional Japanese items. Like our extensive lineup of bento boxes, which feature many beautiful examples of Japanese design like the Blue Rabbit x Moon Bento Set, or the many Hello Kitty bento products we stock. We have a lot of Lucky Cat products...and even some Lucky Frog ones, which really add something new to your home or office. Finally, there are the products you might not have known existed until you stumbled across them on our site, like the custom kanji hanko stamps that we sell, making it possible to get your own name in kanji.

Okay, the blog move is done

The blog move went smoothly I guess. Everything seems to be working. resolves to the correct blog, although (without the www) will take a little longer to redirect.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Update about blog move...

Just a quick note by the way -- sometime soon we'll move the site from our server to Blogger's system, which may cause the site to go down for a period, or for something else to go wrong that we can't anticipate. I'd be surprised if there was a single blog larger than mine on their system -- I hope they kept this site in mind when making their conversion tool. Anyway, apologies of anything goes away for a while.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Fashion Trends in Japanese Society

It's interesting how Japanese society divides itself into different tribes, or zoku, which always seem to come with interesting and well-defined labels attached. Like the trend in "herbivore men" who are more laid back and less assertive in life, and the matching rise in "carnivore women" who openly show ambition and pursue relationships with men they're attracted to. In the Tokyo fashion world, the big trend is Ageha (ah-geh-ha) girls with big, fluffed up hair known as mori hair, with mori meaning "piled up" like spaghetti on a plate. A counter-movement has begun, however, called mori girls, written with the kanji for "forest" and describing girls who like simple fashions and all natural fabrics. According to AnAn magazine, the new fashion trend to watch for is bosatsu danshi or "Buddha Boys," which describes slender, fashion-conscious males who aspire to a form of personal beauty that approaches the perfection of a Buddha statue. You should take these terms with a grain of salt, however, as they are often invented by Japanese magazines who want the credit for popularizing a new trend and may not all be valid, perhaps like the "skirt boys" who are supposedly wearing ladies skirts around Tokyo, which I've never seen. Many of the terms we use today, such as yaoi/bara, yuri and even otaku were popularized by various magazines who were attuned to changes in popular culture. (You can see our great selection of Japanese fashion magazines for both guys and girls on our Fashion Magazine & More page.)
The Japanese media loves to attach labels to new trends, like the new "Forest Girls."

Can You Name these "Japanese English" Words?

When I arrived in Japan, I had to get used to many new things, like being the only gaijin at a concert attended by thousands of Japanese fans, which can really make a person feel self-conscious. I also had to learn to be at peace with not understanding some of the "English" words that were entering my ear. My first ESL job was at the Michigan English School, and I taught lessons to students who were headed to Michigan to attend university despite the fact that I've never been to the state. One day my boss told me, "This school used to be a 'fancy shop,'" and I had no idea what this might mean, although I later learned that it was a wasei eigo ("made in Japan English") word for a shop that sells kawaii character goods like Hello Kitty. While some words used in Japan sound odd to my American ear because they've been imported from British English -- "saloon" (sedan) and "lemon squash" (a lemon flavored drink) are two examples -- other words are just plain difficult to puzzle out. How many of these "English" words can you identify? (Answers below)
viking American dog guts pose
recycle shop roadshow cool biz
don't mind free size open price
NG skinship virgin road
shutter chance soft cream handle keeper
paper driver plus/minus driver pipe cut
Happy Goatse-kun says, "If you go drinking, be sure to choose a 'handle keeper.'

Here are the answers to the above wasei eigo words. For some reason the English word "viking" has come to mean an all-you-can-eat buffet in Japan, and an "American dog" is what a corn dog is called here. A man showing off his muscles is said to be doing a "guts pose," and a recycle shop is what a store selling used goods is called -- what a creative use of language. A movie release in theatres is known as a "roadshow" for some reason, and "cool biz" is the official policy of banning neckties for government employees in summer so air conditioning can be run at a lower level. "Don't Mind" is a simplification of "nevermind" or "don't worry about it" that's used quite frequently, especially in sports. "Free size" is Japanese for "one size fits all," and if a product has no manufacturer's suggested retail price it is "open price." "NG" is short for "no good" and refers to any failed attempt at doing something, as well as "bloopers" on television, while "skinship" is the awesome image of a parent putting their baby in the bath. Walking down the aisle to get married is walking the "virgin road," and the picture of a new married couple kissing for the first time will be a good "shutter chance," or an opportunity to take a nice photograph. If you go drinking with friends, be sure to designate a "handle keeper" who will be responsible for driving home. A "paper driver" is someone who has a driver's license but no longer drives regularly, and a "plus" or "minus" driver just means screwdriver with a Phillips or regular head (very logical). Finally, when a man decides he no longer needs children he might go to the doctor and ask for a "pipe cut."

Awesome Japanese Study Supplies from J-List

When I was studying Japanese back in the 1980s, I had a real problem finding tools to help me learn, so now I make sure that J-List always offers great products to help you reach your nihongo study goals. Like the popular Genki texbook series or the Reading and Writing Japanese guidebooks, and helpful Nintendo DS tools like Dora Gana for learning hiragana and katakana with Doraemon or the Kanji DS Dictionary, most likely the only electronic dictionary you'll ever need. Also: we're happy to announce a new sale on the super kanji study products of White Rabbit, from the Kanji Cards (all levels) to the outstanding Kanji Wall Poster which presents every kanji you'll ever need to learn. Click here to view all Japanese study products, or here to see the top 50 on the site right now.