Friday, May 07, 2010

Scissors Bag or Man-Purse?

Humans are strange creatures. It's okay for a man to carry a laptop bag or "messenger bag" or a backpack, but if the shape of this bag strays just a little from certain norms he'll be derided by his friends for carrying a "man-purse," which is frankly ridiculous, since guys need to carry stuff, just like girls do. But I'm going to come out of the closet and admit to carrying one of these wherever I go in Japan. It's called a "scissors bag," a name which comes from barbers who use them to hold their tools when cutting hair, and I keep my wallet, camera, keys and other important stuff in to I don't lose it -- plus it's got kanji printed on the outside, which is cool. One of the good things about living in Japan is the different set of social norms in place here, which allows me to pick and choose which I'll follow.
So what do you think? Is it okay for a man to carry a "scissors bag"?

Spring is Boso-Zoku Season in Japan

I know winter is finally over when the boso-zoku biker gangs start making their annoying evening rides past my house, revving their engines to make as much noise as possible. An odd exception to Japan's harmonious society, boso-zoku (lit. "violent running tribe") are gangs that dress in clothes with right-wing slogans on them while they ride on motorcycles modified to be extra loud, revelling in their rebellion-without-a-cause. These biker gangs are also known as yankii, similar to the English word "yankee," a name which came about from the tendency of these individuals to frequent the entertainment district of Osaka known as "America-mura" (America Village) back in the 1970s. The motorcycle gangs from the Katsuhiro Otomo film Akira are based on the boso-zoku, but the real bike gangs are about 1000% less interesting, since they're mostly bored delinquents who have nothing better to do but make noise. You could call them "yakuza scouts" because Japan's mafia usually uses boso-zoku members to run errands for them. While it's probably dangerous to get on the wrong side of these loud kids, they're usually nothing more than an annoyance, especially when you're driving somewhere and get caught in a traffic jam caused by a group of them. Often I'll see a group of them at a summer festival, trying to look scary with their puffed up hair, but going up to them and speaking English really defangs them in a hurry.
Japan's biker gangs are way less cool than in Akira.

Japanese "Aizuchi" Agreement Words and Anime

If you've ever spoken with a Japanese person at length, you may have noticed them making strange "agreeing noises" while you were talking. It's an interesting aspect of the Japanese language called aizuchi, basically verbal sounds that a person will make to show they're listening attentively and affirming their agreement with what the other person is saying. In Japanese, I could be explaining something that happened to me, and the person I'm speaking to would say things like eeh (yes), mah (well), so (that's true), and ne (a general word of agreement). It sounds quite strange to native English speakers, but in Japanese these words are necessary for communication to flow smoothly, and if you don't make them properly the other person is likely to stop and ask you what's wrong. When I heard the sad news of the passing of Carl Macek, I decided to hit YouTube for some old Robotech episodes just for old time's sake. (Happily, speaking Japanese means I don't need to watch English-dubbed anime that much.) I was surprised to notice that the English dubbed dialogue, which often includes strange gasps and exclamations that are absent from Japanese original (perhaps the American voice actors get paid per verbal utterance?), sounded very much like the social "agreeing sounds" used in spoken Japanese.
Wha? English-dubbed anime contains some strange sounds, uh-huh!

Awesome Totoro Products at J-List

It brings us great pride to have sold do many awesome Totoro products over the years. We have over 100 fun Totoro and Ghibli items in stock now, from our line of T-shirts, hats and hoodies to the gorgeous plush toys from Sun Arrow, and even those Kompeito candies from Spirited Away and Morinaga caramels that the Cat Bus loves so much. We also carry Totoro music boxes, which are great fun to have in your room. You can browse all our Totoro and Studio Ghibli products, or view the top 50 Totoro products on the site now.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

How Do You Eat Your Coffee Jelly?

The other day I was having lunch with my family and my wife gave me a cup of "coffee jelly." Coffee jelly -- which is a sweet gelatin dessert made with coffee, just like it sounds -- is one of those Japanese foods that sounds weird when you first hear about it, but it's really good. When I went to eat my coffee jelly, I turned the cup upside down and broke the little plastic piece there that lets air into the cup, so that the gelatin would fall down onto the plate, but my family looked at me when I did this. "Dad, I didn't know you were pucchin-ha," my son said, a word formed from pucchin which is the sound of the little plastic tab braking, and ha which means "faction." My son explained to me that he was mazemaze-ha (mah-zay mah-zay-hah) or "mixing in the cup faction" while my daughter adheres to the principles of thesonomama-ha or "just eat it normally in the cup faction." Many other foods get organized along similar lines. For example, when I eat fried eggs, I dabble a bit of soy sauce over them, making me shoyu-ha or "soy sauce faction," but everyone else in my family is sauce-ha (tonkatsu sauce faction), preferring that heavenly Bull-Dog sauce instead. Which one are you?
How a person eats their "coffee jelly" can be quite complex.

Getting Food Ideas From Japan

If I managed a restaurant chain in the U.S., I'd look to Japan to see what interesting ideas I could import. I personally think that yakitori, the delicious teriyaki chicken cooked on bamboo skewers, would be a great addition to the menus of restaurants wanting to differentiate their offerings, and I could see patrons happily munching on chicken over beers as an appetizer before the main course arrived. I'd also be sure and adopt the awesome Japanese practice of handing customers a steaming hot towel when they sit down to order -- it's a great way to make them feel special. Finally, I'm a fan of chu-hi or drinks made with shochu and fresh-squeezed fruit juice, like Lemon or Grapefruit Sours. When you order these drinks, the server hands you a glass containing the shochu and a lemon or grapefruit which you squeeze yourself with the included juicer. It's great fun, and I'm sure that any restaurant chain that adopted it would have many takers.
I'd love to see yakitori become as famous as sushi around the world -- yum!

Late Night Otaku TV in Japan

Late-night TV in Japan is always fun to watch, and I like to flip through the channels to see what's showing. There are usually a couple Japanese-dubbed "infomercials" from the U.S. on, one of the more unfortunate recent cultural imports, as well as talk shows with up-and-coming musicians plus plenty of random anime to watch. (Oddly, 2 am is "Golden Time" when it comes to anime, with nearly all "major" series like Clannad and Haruhi shown in this time slot, don't ask me why.) The other night I caught an odd variety show that featured three middle-aged otaku men showing off their knowledge of anime, doing impromptu sentai performances in which they had to save actress Misako Uno from a monster in a rubber suit, and performing their favorite anime songs on a stage. My wife laughed to see the men making fools of themselves on TV, but I cautioned her to take what she was seeing with a grain of salt. First of all, Japanese television is famous for yarase or faked TV shows, and even the most natural-looking situations are usually scripted. Also, the men weren't appearing on TV because they were otaku, but because they wanted to be on TV, which is worth keeping in mind. When a Japanese gamer officially married Nene from Love Plus in a church in Guam, he wasn't actually marrying a video game character, but doing something silly to get famous on the Internet. The same can be said for the South Korean man who married his dakimakura anime hug pillow and those wacky fans who hold birthday parties for 2D game characters and post pictures on the Internet -- their desire to see people react is part of their motivation, and thus we shouldn't always take what they do at face value.
Like everyone, sometimes anime fans do things just to get attention.

We Love To Surprise You

At J-List, we love to find products that not only capture the awesomeness of Japan in general, but which may not be known to everyone before they see them on our site. Many Japanese hate to eat bread crusts, and they have these fantastic "sandwich shapers" which remove the crusts and also seal the contents of your sandwich shut, which is great fun for everyone -- there's even a Hello Kitty Sandwich Shaper on the site. There's nothing like hold an umbrellas that's designed to look like a samurai sword, and the samurai sword umbrellas we have on the site now are extremely popular with our customers. Finally, we have an affordable custom hanko name stamp service allowing you go get your own name in kanji -- the stamps are even legal for use in Japan.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Japanese Love to Organize Things

Quick, do you know how many Great Lakes there are on North America? The answer is five. The reason I know this is, the official name of the Great Lakes in Japanese is Go-daiko or the Five Great Lakes. The Japanese can be really organized at times, and they like to codify things into little lists to make them easier to manage, not unlike the classic Seven Wonders of the World ranking. Have you read the Four Great Tragedies of Shakespere? I didn't know there were only four of them, but this is the term the Japanese use to describe Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear. These "most famous" mini lists are positively legion in Japan, and no matter what subject you're interested in, there's probably a "best three" list for you. How about the Three Rare Delicacies of the World? Caviar, foie gras and truffles. The Three Great Soups? Bouillabaisse, Shark's Fin and Tom Yan Kung. How about the Three Great Guitarists of the world? Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. There is even an official listing for the Three Great Brands of Ham in the world. If you're planning a trip to Japan, you might want to hit the Nihon Sankei, the Three Most Beautiful Views of Japan, which are the gnarled Japan Pines of Matsushima, the view from the top of Amano Hashidate Mountain in Kyoto and the floating arch at Miyajima.
The beautiful pine of Matsushima have been a tourist attraction since the Edo Period.

European Ladies vs. Japanese Butlers

I've been watching a show called Ladies vs. Butlers, which is sort of like Kanokon meets Maria Holic without the nosebleeds and the GOD OH GOD!! Although it's primarily a "fan service" show, I liked it more than I thought I would due to the surprisingly interesting characters, especially Selnia Iori Flameheart, the ultra-rich tsundere girl with awesome "drill hair" that actually spins when she gets angry. In one scene I thought was interesting, Selnia meets her father, and the two share a kiss while the main character Akiharu looks on, an anime-style sweat drop appearing over his head to indicate his discomfort at the scene. The Japanese are very conservative and never engage in behavior like kissing or hugging in public, and even kissing or hugging of family members (except babies) is unheard of. (Tomo told me, "No, never, ever.") As a result, Japanese have a bit of a complex about "Western" style kissing including the cheek-kissing done between friends in European countries, and when Selnia kissed her father, all of Japan no doubt shared the main character's shock.
Ladies vs. Butlers is an anime about love, fan service and "drill hair."

Cash Stipends for Families with Children Starts Soon

The Japanese government will soon be making good on its promise of distributing money to families with children, giving approximately $140 per child per month, with the amount set to double next year. The plan was a major tenet of the Democratic Party of Japan's "Manifesto," which promises to switch the focus of the government "from concrete to humans" by replacing unnecessary construction projects with policies that benefit people directly. While helping families with children is all well and good, I'm not sure if this new plan is going to have that much benefit. The lack of clear leadership and direction by Prime Minister Hatoyama -- famously described as "loopy" by the Washington Post, which caused a minor uproar here -- makes voters more worried about the future, which probably won't have a positive effect on the birthrate. The payments are available to all residents of Japan who pay taxes including gaijin, and in an effort to help dekasegi foreigners who send money to their families in countries like Brazil or Peru, the money will be granted to people whose dependent children don't live in Japan. This seems to open the door to fraud, though, and this has already happened: a South Korean man tried to claim 554 adopted children in Thailand as his dependents, which would entitle him to $75,000 per month. His application was declined.
Japan is trying to improve its birth rate using cash payments.

A Few of My Favorite Things at J-List

A few of my favorite things, selected at random. First, there's the awesome chocolate products we have on the site, like those delightful Japan Kit Kats we restocked today. Remember that we remove chocolate from the site when warm weather arrives, and it's starting to get warm, so hurry and buy these items before they disappear suddenly for the summer. Virtually all elementary school kids are given a bottle of milk and a packet of coffee-chocolate milk powder called MiruMake with lunch, and we thought it'd be cool to carry this on the site for anyone who was curious to try some. Finally those UCC coffee + Evangelion figures are awesome, and are selling fast. Did you pick up your set yet?