Friday, April 23, 2010

All About the Media in Japan

I was recently asked to write about the news media in Japan, and I'm happy to oblige. Like other countries, the Japanese masu-komi (as the media is called, from "mass-communications") reports on various news events to keep everyone informed on what's happening in the world. From the beginning of Japan's rapid industrialization during the Meiji Period newspapers have been been important industries, and several have come to form the center of complex corporate networks that also own television stations, baseball teams, and so on. As with all things, politics enters the reporting to a certain degree, and you pick up pretty quickly that Yomiuri-affiliated news sources will generally be on the conservative side while Asahi Shimbun's networks will lean to the left. The exception to this is NHK, Japan's version of the BBC, which strives in all things to be completely neutral. There are some interesting blind spots in the way the media works here. For example, they tread lightly when discussing certain topics, such as the Imperial Family or any topic related to a certain politically well-connected Buddhist religion. When Google rolled out a nifty feature that allowed users to overlay historical maps with their own neighborhoods there was criticism because the maps allowed everyone to see which areas had been designated for burakumin, the class of people who performed "unclean" jobs like tanning and cremation. Any discussion of the burakumin is a huge taboo in Japan and the news media uniformly avoided reporting on the Google scandal. The exception was Yahoo Japan, which is increasingly gaining a reputation as a place to turn to for unfiltered news.
Japan's Masu-komi is always on the job, unless the subject matter is one they don't cover for some reason.

In Japan, a Scarf is Called a "Muffler"

Coming to live in Japan means remapping some of the English words in your brain to fit the way the Japanese use them. Sometimes it's little things, like the way "juice" is used to refer to any canned or bottled drink including tea or cola, or a winter scarf being called a "muffler," or the way a "bike" always refers to a motorcycle and never to a bicycle, as it might in my own dialect of English (California). If you're hungry, have a "sand" (what sandwich is often shortened to) or perhaps some "ice" (ice cream), and if you work very hard you might be able to buy a "mansion" (an apartment that's owned rather than rented). In some cases the English words that sound unfamiliar to me may come from Britain, such as the owner of a restaurant or coffee shop being referred to as "Master" or the use of pantsu to mean underwear rather than its North American meaning of external trousers. Sometimes the words are different because they represent entirely new concepts. In the world of high school baseball, the English word "manager" always refers to females who will join the team and do things like wash uniforms, keep score and generally see to the well-being of the team members.
In Japan, a scarf is called a "muffler" which can be hard to get used to.

Moe Moe Military Beam!

Manga are the famous comics that have come to define Japan around the world, although Japanese above a certain age will also use the term for animation shown on television rather than in printed form. I learned about manga comics in the 1980s and I was instantly captivated by this "new" art form, although of course it's not new at all. Manga, which literally means "whimsical pictures," was invented by the Edo Period by ukiyo-e artist Hokusai, who created pretty much every famous picture of old Japan you've ever seen, from Red Fuji to the Great Wave Off Yokohama. Today, manga is used extensively for education, like the manga-based books on Japanese history bookstores overflow with, as well as for the dissemination of information to the public on earthquake preparedness. Now moe manga style art is being used to recruit for the Japanese military, as in the above image created by the Tokushima Prefecture SDF, which reads, "The more to learn about a career in the Self-Defense Forces, the more you realize it's a job you can take pride in!" Doesn't it make you want to sign up?
A moe illustration recruiting for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.

A Delicious Way to Experience Many Japanese Foods

J-List has some fun ways for you to sample Japanese culture, including those awesome traditional Food Drops candies, which let you taste regional delicacies from all over Japan, including classic tastes in the ukiyoe Food Drops line. Be sure to try the new Food Furikake line, too, which is dried ingredients you sprinkle over rice to enjoy delicious tastes. Great for bento, too!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

One Does Not Simply Pronounce "Eyjafjallajokull"

Iceland's erupting volcano Mt. Eyjafjallajokull has certainly been in the news a lot this week, and the media here was filled with stories of poor European travelers who were unable to return home, and had to wait at Narita Airport for days to find out when flights would be resumed. One group from Norway was upbeat, though, saying, "It's okay, really. It's more opportunity to enjoy the delicious food and pleasant people in Japan." There's been a lot of mirth at the inability of anyone not from Iceland to correctly pronounce "Eyjafjallajokull," which looks, Yasu observed to me, like something his baby daughter would type on a computer keyboard. In Japanese, the concept of not being able to pronounce a certain word is a bit difficult to grasp due to the syllabic nature of katakana, which guarantees you can at least see how the syllables should sound (see example, above). The downside to katakana is that all sounds will be filtered through the limited Japanese phonetic system, which is why Japanese have such thick accents when speaking English, but at least everyone can pronounce "Evangelion" the same way.

Manga, The Ultimate Medium

I recently watched an anime called She, The Ultimate Weapon (aka Saikano: The Last Love Song on This Little Planet), a well-written high school love story about a boy named Shuji and his shy girlfriend Chise (chi-seh), with an interesting twist that Chise has been turned into a terrible weapon of destruction by the Japanese military. Chise is a great character: although she can destroy entire cities, she's still a shy, bumbling dojikko who falls down a lot and who isn't sure of her own feelings toward her boyfriend. In one scene I thought was interesting, Shuji and Chise nearly break up because neither is sure about how to handle themselves in a romantic relationship. Chise says, "I don't know anything about dating...I read comics....but unlike other people, I didn't know what to do." This scene highlighted a big difference in the perception of comics between Japan and the West, and the way many stories in girl's manga serve as an important source of information on love and relationships that wouldn't be available through any other medium. This is an idea that would have been impossible to conceive of before manga became part of the larger world popular culture. Can you imagine reading X-Men or Spider-Man to find out about relationships?

(Of course, some of the content in books like Sho-Comi can get on the steamy side, as it's aimed at a higher age teenager. In cases like these, J-List always specifies this in the descriptions so there's never any confusion with customers.)

Saikano is a unique love story in the middle of war, which is dark and moving.

Strange Branding in Japan

One thing I've learned about Japan is how differently the idea of brands works here. We generally expect companies to make products similar to the ones they've made in the past: Dell sells computers, but if they started selling running shoes tomorrow, you'd wonder what was in their drinking water. Yet this tendency for companies to do what we expect them to doesn't always apply in Japan. Panasonic makes performance bicycles and builds homes under its PanaHome brand, Asahi sells beer as well as bottled green tea and BalanceUp nutritional snacks, and Yamaha makes everything from pianos to motorcycles to network routers and a popular line of golf clubs. Department store chain Ito Yokado operates the Seven-Eleven and Denny's chains in Japan, and when revenue dropped it decided to re-brand itself around its most profitable segment. It changed its name to "Seven&i Holdings" and slapped a giant Seven-Eleven sign on all of its department well as on its Denny's restaurants, which damages both brands, since I expect to be able to order onigiri rice balls along with my hamberg steak. Now I see that Sony will start selling two kinds of laptops: the normal Vaio line it designs, and cheaper "division two" Vaios designed and built by generic Chinese companies that will still be sold under the Sony brand name. I don't now a lot, but doesn't this seem like a bad direction for one of the world's most famous PC brands to take?

Kanebo's rose-essence fragrance and the re-branded Denny's, examples of unique branding in Japan.

Anime & Manga Magazine Subscriptions from Japan

The Japanese have solved the problem of how to save the publishing industry: give cool free stuff to readers, known as omake (oh-mah-kay). J-List carries tons of great magazines through our revolving subscription system, which lets J-List customers buy the most popular anime, manga, hobby, fashion and "H" magazine as they're released in Japan, and many of these magazines come with great free stuff in most any issue. Like Shonen Ace or Young Ace, which has awesome manga stories as well as figures and more for you, or the super-deluxe omake magazine Dengeki G's Festival. If you like loads of anime posters, make sure you subscribe to Megami Magazine or NyanType, both of which are outstanding. These free gifts are only available with that month's issue, and if you miss one it will be very diffcult to find later, so we recommend you consider subscribing (remember, you pay from month-to-month and can quit at any time). Click here to see all the magazine subscriptions J-List sells, ranked by popularity.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Japan's "History Girls"

I often write about the latest wacky social trends to take root in Japan, since I know I'll never run out of material to report on. Like the phenomenon known as bento danshi, or men who take an interest in making healthy and economical bento lunches. If you've been paying attention to the products J-List has been adding to our site every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, you may have noticed an increase in the historically-themed traditional items we've been carrying, from the bento boxes decorated with samurai crests on them to other interesting traditional Japanese products we add to the site regularly. This is largely due to the recent popularity of Japanese history among females, a phenomenon known as rekijo or "history girls." I've always thought that Japanese have a deeper connection to their own history than we have in the U.S. at least, which you can see in the popularity of jidai geki period dramas on television. But the boom in history among females that's been going on over the couple few years -- no doubt helped by casting handsome actors like Gackt or Masaharu Fukuyama into major roles -- has been fascinating to watch.

Japan's "History Girls" have fallen in love with Japan's past.

Carl Macek, 1951-2010.

I saw the news that Robotech creator Carl Macek had died on Saturday, making it a sad day for all old-school anime fans indeed. As the main person involved with bringing the popular Super Dimensional Fortress Macross series to the English language as Robotech, Carl Macek can be credited with introducing a generation to Japanese animation and doing more to make "anime" a household name than anyone before Katsuhiro Otomo and his film Akira. Of course, no one is going to accuse Mr. Macek of being perfect. His "Will it blend?" approach to joining unrelated shows is fairly annoying to us now, although he did have his reasons for combining three different series into one gestalt (television stations required at least 65 episodes for syndication, so he needed to find additional material from somewhere). I've been attending anime conventions since the late 1980s and met Mr. Macek and his wife many times, and I always admired him and was happy to work in the same industry as him. Tonight I will certainly raise a glass in toast to Carl Macek.

What do you think? Was Carl Macek the "Gene Roddenberry" of the anime world? Or have I been sniffing too much glue? If you're younger than a certain age you likely won't have an opinion, since you'll have only watched decently translated anime that wasn't changed around to fit an external plan. Give me your thoughts in the comments.

Carl Macek helped make anime what it is today.

HP Computers are "Maid in Japan"

Increasingly otaku culture encompassing everything from anime to Miku Hatsune to cosplay is becoming Japan's mainstream culture, at least among anyone with an Internet connection and a Pixiv account. It's always fun when companies get into the spirit of things, like when the Akihabara KFC dressed their Colonel Sanders statue in a maid's costume, or when Microsoft commissioned an official anime character mascot for Windows 7. Now Hewlett-Packard is getting into the game, with its new "Maid In Tokyo" campaign featuring girls from the kawaii idol group "Idoling!!!" who give customers a maid cafe experience right in their web browser. Answer the correct quiz about HP's products and the girls will make desktop wallpaper featuring a picture of a pancake with your name written in chocolate sauce, just like they do in Akihabara.

HP is embracing otaku culture with its "Maid in Tokyo" campaign.

Awesome Bento Boxes @ J-List

J-List takes real pride in the excellent lineup of products we offer to our customers around the world, and our selection of bento boxes is second to none. Whether you're looking for gorgeous traditional themed bento offerings by companies like Hakoya, bento boxes for guys or fun Hello Kitty or Totoro lunchboxes, you can find something fun on our site. Click here to view all bento box offerings, here to see the bento accessories including onigiri makers, or here to see the top 50 bento boxes ranked by order of popularity.