Friday, March 26, 2010

Learning English Through YouTube

My daughter is pretty smart. The other day I was getting on her case for watching too much YouTube at her computer, which is a problem I'm sure more than a few parents face. She had the perfect response for me, though: "But Dad, I'm using YouTube to study English!" She had rightly calculated that her former ESL-teaching father couldn't forbid an activity that helped improve language skills, and I sheepishly let her get back to her shows. Having access to American TV through the Internet has given her a lot of exposure to new words and phrases, and she often comes to me with questions about what certain words mean, like the following exchange from an episode of Teen Titans that was giving her trouble:
Beast Boy: Why are ducks so funny? Because they're always "quacking" jokes.

Starfire: Oh I see. It is humorous because ducks lack the large brain necessary for the telling of jokes.
Most of us study foreign languages by learning grammar and vocabulary through language textbooks, and every time your brain learns a new concept, a physical change occurs. For example, if I teach you that the Japanese word for umbrella is kasa and you remember it, a synaptic bridge will have been built in your brain linking these ideas, perhaps cross-referencing it with the Spanish word for "house" (casa) since the pronunciation is the same. In the case of my daughter, however, the English and Japanese sides of her brain often seem to grow separately, and so she's able to use both languages well but often has no idea what a given word means in the other language.

My daughter is learning English through YouTube.

Learn About Japan Through Anime

It's interesting to see the random cultural tidbits you can pick up watching anime. Like the scene in K-On! in which Mugi goes to a fast food restaurant with Mio and Ritsu and, instead of eating the french fries she's just bought, puts them in a pile with the other girls' fries so they can all grab from the center, an example of putting the group before the individual. I was watching the new anime Dance in the Vampire Bund the other day, and I noticed an interesting scene in which the pure and honest Yuki was walking a few steps behind the male protagonist, Akira. It's an expression of an old saying that goes sanpo sagatte, shi no kage fumazu or "walk three steps behind so as not to step on the master's shadow," words from a less enlightened age when females were expected to walk behind males (teachers, husbands, etc.) in a visible show of respect. The custom is no longer in practice of course, but in the highly stylized world of anime, Yuki was shown walking behind Akira to reinforce her image as a pure, good girl.

So, do women from the West (or wherever) ever feel insulted by things you see in anime? Another interesting word is お前 (omae), a male only word (pretty much) meaning "you" which is sometimes called sexist because men use it to women with the idea being that the man is higher in status than the woman, since he can use this word and she can't. Thoughts on this?

Walk three steps behind, so as not to step on your master's shadow.

We Love Magazines with Free Stuff (Omake) + J-List Spring Sale

Japan has figured out how to save the publishing industry: just give cool free stuff to readers! Many of the best anime, manga, game and fashion magazines that J-List carries are famous for giving out rare goods, called omake (oh-mah-kay) in Japanese, and we think it's a great practice since it makes buying that magazine something really special. Some magazines give huge numbers of original anime posters, like NyanType and Megami Magazine, while other magazines give you great anime pencil boards, document protectors or even figures. Often books or magazines are entirely built around the idea of giving cool stuff to fans, like the Love Plus artbook box that's are loaded with cool collectibles, or the new Kagaboo manga + figure set. Click here to browse all the anime magazines we offer for subscription, or here to see the top 50 magazines.

Announcing the J-List Spring Sale! For the next week, we'll send you a store credit worth $5 for every $100 you spend for your next purchase. It gives you a good excuse to throw an extra few Kit Kats or a case of your favorite Japanese gum to your cart if you're only a few dollars under the next $100 amount. The gift codes never expire and can be used any time. Celebrating Spring with J-List!

J-List Spring Sale

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Bizarre But Interesting Japanese Television

Sometimes it's fun to flip through the channels late at night and see what wackiness Japanese television has for me. For some reason, late night is "prime time" for many of the best anime series, and I often catch a random episode at 2 am, although I can't understand how they're making money by having their shows on when so few people are awake. Some of the most interesting shows are quite mundane, like one I caught the other day which was essentially a man and two two cute women sitting in a restaurant eating plates of increasingly spicy curry, which were so hot that the three people were practically in tears. The reactions of the two actresses as they put each bite of curry into their mouths was strangely hypnotic to watch. Of course, late-night Japanese television isn't all good: for some reason, Japan has decided to import American infomercials, which are just as bad dubbed in Japanese.

Another popular food show is Kuishimbo Banzai! which is nothing but people eating.

Building Humility by Cleaning Your School

Spring vacation has come to Japan, and as a parent this means I've got two teenagers under foot for the next two weeks, asking us to take them places even though we're busy with work. Before the official end of the school year -- it ends in March and begins again in April -- my kids had to do oh-soji or "big cleaning" in their schools, washing and wiping everything in the classrooms, cleaning the windows and hallways, and even scrubbing the toilets. I've always thought the Japanese custom of students cleaning their own schools was a good one, since it helps teach them important skills like responsibility and teamwork, and most of all humility, a very important trait for a Japanese person to have. Growing up in the U.S. public school system there was always janitorial staff who did all the cleaning, and to be honest I probably looked down my nose at them a little, so it'd have done me some good to clean a few toilets. I asked my daughter if the teachers were there to make sure the students were each cleaning the areas they were assigned properly, and she said no. Instead, the realization that anyone not doing their part to would be letting the other students in the class down, and so everyone worked hard at their "big cleaning."

So what do you think of this policy? What if they tried to introduce it in the U.S.? 

In Japanese schools, students do all their own cleaning, which builds character, as in this illustration.

The Ultimate Test of the Gaijin in Japan: Beer Pouring

Alcohol has historically played an important social role in Japan, and it's interesting to examine some of the customs that have grown up around it. Alcohol "lubricates" human relationships, and Japanese companies always have formalized functions in which employees will come together as a group to eat and drink -- even if the "drinking" is just oolong tea and not something stronger. One alcohol-related custom I like is the general agreement that whatever one says or does while inebriated shall be forgotten by everyone the next day, something I find very civilized indeed. In most situations, it's considered bad form for a person to pour their own sake or beer. Doing so is called tejaku (teh-jah-koo), and it's the subject of more than a few sad enka songs (iTunes Japan link) about men drinking in a lonely bar after their wife has run away with another man. Instead of pouring for yourself, friends drinking together will always pour beer for each other, which turns drinking into a fun social activity that makes everyone feel better. You can learn a lot about how foreigners are acculturating to Japan by going drinking with them. If they're physically unable to pour beer into their own glass, as I am, that's a person who's probably been in Japan too long. Inversely, there are some foreigners here who will specifically state, "We're gaijin and we're going to drink like gaijin!" as they pour their own beer.

Japan has some interesting social customs related to alcohol.

Of J-Snacks and H-Games

J-List is a fun place where you can find everything from kanji T-shirts that say "Looking for a Japanese Girlfriend" to the actual Sanrio-licensed Hello Kitty personal massagers. We're also quite fond of the concept of learning about Japan through its delicious snack culture, and we carry hundreds of interesting items for you. The unique Japanese flavors of Kit Kat have become popular all over the world, and we carry the best of them, although remember that all chocolate will be removed from the site in a month or so as summer gets near. There are many fun traditional snacks, like Kompeito, the star-shaped candy that's been in Japan for 500 years, or the popular Ukiyoe Food Drops we carry. Finally, don't miss our selection of Japanese gum, including Fuwarinka Rose Essence Gum, which promises to make you smell nicer from the inside out.

Good news for fans of the PC dating-sim games that J-List sells: you can now purchase the excellent games by Crowd in convenient Internet Download Editions along with our other games. Crowd has brought us some of the most awesome titles over the years, from the legendary X-Change series of games about a boy who accidentally changes into a girl to Tokimeki Check in!, an awesome game about finding love in a traditional Japanese inn. We're also including the outstanding Brave Soul, a full-featured RPG with scrolling maps and real combat and a great system that gives you "love points" with the girls in your party after each mission. Best of all, we're lowering the price on these games, too. Click to see the top 50 dating-sim games on CD-ROM or Download Edition.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Of "Weird Al" Yankovic and Anime

In the history of music there have been few performers quite like "Weird Al" Yankovic, who's been creating funny parodies of famous songs (and polkas!) for more than three decades. One of the most amazing things about the man is his ability to reach out to such a wide range of listeners, from my mother (who attended one of his live shows with me at the San Diego County Fair) all the way down to my three-year-old nephew, who loves all his songs -- for the record, that's a range of 67 years. About the only other thing I can think of that has such a wide appeal is, well, anime, and I've had the most enlightening conversations with young people at anime conventions on the subject. It's quite amusing, talking with a 14-year-old cosplaying anime fan who longs for "the good old days" of anime, and I can't think of another form of entertainment that could bring together such a wide range of people.

Classic anime polka mash-up.

If It Was Made of Metal, the Japanese Melted It During WWII

Japan has certainly had a unique history. Compared with most other nations, it got a late start, importing its writing system from China in the 4th century A.D., yet it was able to create a unique culture that enthralls us to this day. During the 250 years of the Edo Period, Japan closed itself off almost totally from the outside world, yet when it ended this policy in 1868 it modernized its infrastructure so rapidly it was able to defeat the Russian Empire in a war less than 40 years later. Often when studying the history of the 20th century you'll encounter an interesting phenomenon: any object made of metal will have "melted down during World War II, but later replaced" added as a footnote, including the bronze bust of Dr. Clark who uttered those immortal words "boys, be ambitious!" and the original statue of Faithful Dog Hachiko, plus Osaka's largest metal tower. The general perception here is that while Japanese were melting down every pot and pan they could find to turn into war materiel, Americans were being wowed by the Wizard of Oz and Fantasia on the silver screen. Of course, these two films actually came out before America entered the war, but it's still an interesting observation that I thought I'd pass along.

If it was made of metal, the Japanese melted it down during WWII.

The "Ice Age" of Construction in Japan

March is a time of many things in Japan. It's the dividing line between winter and spring, when people wonder when the beautiful sakura will start to bloom again. For students graduating from junior high or high school, March is the season of sayonara, as friends say goodbye to each other, perhaps taking one final trip to Tokyo Disneyland together. March is also the period before the fiscal year ends for the Japanese government, when municipalities rush to spend the money that's left in their budgets, which usually means endless road construction causing traffic jams all month long. This year, however, there's a new government in power that has promised to switch its focus "from concrete to humans." Many projects have been unceremoniously cut, including budgets for roads and other public works, effectively creating an "ice age" for the construction industry. I'm certainly not in favor of building roads that don't need to be built, and the previous ruling party proved unable to resist the temptation of expensive building projects, often structured to benefit the politicians who helped make the projects possible. Still, a few years ago there'd have been no less than three crews of construction workers doing various road maintenance between J-List and my dentist this time of year, but these days I can't recall the last time I had to wait for road work. I wonder if it might not be too much change, too quickly?

Japan's construction industry is experiencing an "ice age" right now.

Wacky Japanese T-Shirts @ J-List

Ever since we brought out our first "Looking for a Japanese Girlfriend" T-shirt more than a decade ago, J-List customers have loved our wacky and fun kanji T-shirts and other products. Now we've got an incredible mix of great shirts which are all made by our professional staff in San Diego (not mass-produced in China), from embroidered Domo-kun polo shirts for people who want to "keep it real" even while at work, awesome T-shirts that express your love of Japan in wacky or fun ways, and warm hoodies that are the softest you can find. Click here to browse all our T-shirts, or here to view the top 50 T-shirt, hoody and hat items.