Friday, May 14, 2010

Japan is Relaxed About Sex in Media

One aspect I like a lot about Japan is the general lack of "uptightness" people and companies have about the ecchi side of society. Many of Japan's top artists, from Code Geass character designer Takehiro Kimura to Sgt. Frog creator Mine Yoshizaki, have extensive careers on the steamer side of the industry as well, yet no one rends their garments shouting "think of the children!" because of this fact, and huge companies like Bandai are perfectly happy to work with them. Actually most of the top Japanese game and anime companies have eroge in their past, including the mighty Gainax, and no one bats an eye about this since that's part of life, too, and there's no reason to build a wall between the two sides. Recently it was announced that JAV star Nao Oikawa was going to star in Ryoma-den, the high-budget jidai-geki drama about the life of Ryoma Sakamoto. You might think that having an actress from her line of work would cause some raised eyebrows on the straight-laced NHK network, but there was no negative reaction to the news at all -- since she'll be playing a woman of ill repute from the Yoshiwara district of Edo, she's perfect for the role.
Code Geass artist Takehiro Kimura also did the Viper hentai series
Takehiro Kimura made the classic Viper series, and Code Geass.

Foreign Loan Words, Ramune an Johnny's Entertainment

While all languages change over time, the massive shifts the Japanese language has been through over the past century and a half have been incredible. When Japan began modernization during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), it had to come to terms with the many foreign loan words that were being imported into the language, something that hasn't always been a smooth process. One thing I've noticed is that a person can often tell when a foreign word entered use here based on how "messed up" it is compared the original. I was reading about the legendary talent agency Johnny & Associates, who created pretty much every successful boy band in the past four decades. In Japanese the company's name is "Johnny's" but the katakana is mistranslated so that it seems to be "journey's" or "jannies" (ジャニーズ instead of ジョニーズ). From this I guessed that the company had been around since the 1960s, and I was right -- they were founded in 1962. Some other examples of English words that were imported incorrectly decades ago are donmai which means "never mind," said by baseballl players consoling a teammate who has just struck out (from "don't mind"); hatsu which is the word for chicken hearts; and good old ramune, which started as "lemonade."
Arashi is one of the red-hot boy bands managed by Jahnnies, er, Johnny's.

The Japanese Love Waiting in Line

One interesting thing I've observed about the Japanese is that they love to line up for things. If a Japanese person is walking down the street and sees people lined up to buy something -- doughnuts at the newly opened Krispy Creme in Osaka, perhaps -- there's a good chance they'll get in line, too. It seems there's something innately fun about standing in line to buy something, and the general rule is that the longer the wait is, the better the food will be -- and if no customers are waiting to eat, it's a sign that the food isn't very good. I've experienced this phenomenon firsthand when I took my son down to Tokyo for his Lego robot soccer tournament, and we walked around the city trying to find something good to eat. We ended up lining up behind two dozen Waseda university students for an hour to eat was the best chashu pork ramen in our lives. These days, technologies like Twitter are changing the way people line up, since you can check current wait times before going over to the popular Gundam Cafe in Akihabara if you like.

(By the way, the ramen shop we went to is this one. Doesn't look like much but it was delicious.)

There's something fun about lining up for hours for something.

Awesome Japanese iPhone Accessories @ J-List

The iPhone has caught on in a big way in Japan, which is great for J-List customers since it means great hard-to-find iPhone and related products for us. Like our popular line of Evangelion iPhone cases and new Touhou iPhone cases (!), cases that let you add awesome Japanese phone straps to your iPhone, and even anime-themed earphones and so on. Of course don't forget the iTunes Japan prepaid cards, which give you access to a wonderful world of anime, JPOP and other music from Japan. Click here to see all iPhone Japan products ranked by popularity.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Encountering Unknown Words in Japan

After studying Japanese for four years at San Diego State University and living here for nearly twenty years, I'm about as fluent in Japanese as I could ever need to be. I'm able to communicate with the people I encounter on a daily basis and handle Japanese in business settings including negotiating contracts (that was difficult at first, let me tell you). Still, I never know when a word that I've never encountered will come out of nowhere. The other day my wife was telling me about a TV show she'd seen on ways to manage stress. "They suggested you try rhythmically tapping something repeatedly, like Buddhist priests when they tap their mokugyo." "What's that?" I asked, having never happened across that word, although I guessed corrected that the kanji would be "wooden fish" (木魚). It turns out to be a fish-shaped percussion instrument that Buddhist priests play during ceremonies, although I don't know how my wife expected me to have known this. Later that day my father-in-law came out of our rural liquor store with our beagle Marron. "I'm taking the dog to get her shot for kyoken-byo," he told me, using another word I'd never heard, though I could tell the kanji must mean "mad-dog-disease" (狂犬病). I knew that kyogyu-byo (狂牛病)was Japanese for "mad cow disease," and I imagined some kind of canine version of foot-and-mouth infecting our beloved dog, until I figured out that he must have been talking about rabies.
When you know kanji it's not impossible to figure out new words.

Raising Kids in Japan

I often write about what it's like to raise kids in Japan, since this subject may offer some insight into the country that would hard to find elsewhere. As a general rule, Japan seem more focused on education than the U.S., at least compared with my own experiences with public schools in Maryland, Virginia and California. Both my kids attend juku, or evening schools which help the kids keep up in their studies, and the general culture of attending these extra lessons helps keep them more focused on learning than they would be otherwise. (These schools are often translated as "cram schools" in English, although that word is better applied to yobiko or "preparation schools" which are specifically for getting students into universities, slightly different in this case.) It also seems to me that there is a lot more contact between schools and parents here, in part due to the custom of impressing parents into volunteering to be special helpers for school events, which everyone hates, although it does bring parents and kids closer together. The other day my wife attended a parent-teacher-student meeting to discuss my daughter's future direction. The teacher hadn't figured out that our daughter was haafu (half-Japanese and half-American) and was going on and on about how good her English was. We got a good laugh out of that one, and made sure not to correct her misunderstanding.
Asuka is one of the most famous haafu characters in anime.

Groundbreaking Ceremonies in Japan

I'm sure you've all had the experience of being called home on short notice to participate in a Shinto ceremony in your living room. This happened to me once -- we were starting some "reform" work (what the Japanese like to call remodelling) in our house, redoing our bathrooms and replacing the older, allergy-causing tatami mats with Okinawa-style square mats, and so we called our neighborhood Shinto priest out to bless the house before starting the construction. There are two main religious traditions in Japan: Shinto, which sees kami or spirits in natural objects and which is generally called on for life-affirming events such as baby namings, weddings or starting construction on a new house; and Buddhism, which Japanese generally turn to when dealing with death, funerals or remembering lost loved ones. For our groundbreaking ceremony, the priest spread out an offering consisting of fish, rice, clean water, oranges, a daikon radish and sake, and proceeded to bless the house and its inhabitants. The Shinto priest who performed the home-blessing ceremony was the same one who did the groundbreaking ceremony when we started construction of the J-List office more than a decade ago, and he was fascinated with how far our little company had come, bringing interesting Japanese products to people all around the world.
Building something in Japan? You'd better call a Shinto priest.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Curry, the National Food of Japan

"You've been in Japan too long when you no longer find anything amusing about the concept of 'Vermont Curry.'" Although you may think of certain foods like sushi, sashimi, tempura and sukiyaki as popular Japanese dishes, the honorary national food of Japan has got to be curry, or as the Japanese always call it, curry rice. Curry spread out from India during the 1700s, a gift from the British Empire that's enjoyed in Japan more than any other kind of food save rice itself. Many companies compete to bring the best curry to market, with products like House The Curry (the Japanese love to add the word "the" to product names), Java Curry, and Vermont Curry, flavored with the mild kiss of Vermont apples. One of the rules of curry-eating is, it takes even better after it's been left to sit out all night, and "second day curry" is just heavenly (although my son discovered that "second day Chef Boyardee ravioli" is pretty good, too). Curry is available in many forms in Japan, poured over fried pork cutlet; as udon noodles in a curry soup, a popular dish from Nagoya; or as curry bread, a doughnut-like ball of bread with curry inside. If you'd like to try some Japanese curry, why not sample our Food Drops candies or Food Furikake?
Mmm, Vermony Curry, why do you tempt me so?

Japan's "Middle Class"

One interesting aspect of Japan is that around 80% of the people here consider themselves to be "middle class," which might represent the best approximation of the "classless society" that so many have tried to create in the past. One mechanism that helps this idea take root is "study-based meritocracy" in which students who study hard and pass tests are able to get access to the best schools, which also happen to be the most affordable. While the top universities in the U.S. are expensive private schools like Harvard or MIT, most of the top schools here are national universities like Tokyo University or Kyoto University. While competition to get into these schools is unbelievably fierce, the education students receive there is presumably the best, and tuition is just $5000 a year. Japanese kids often show "filial piety" (that is, respect and thanks to their parents) by studying hard to get into one of these national universities, which reduces the financial burden on the parents compared with a private university like Waseda. There are of course exceptions to this system, but by and large the idea that anyone can get ahead by studying hard is very real in Japan.
Japan is a great meritocracy, in which 80% of people are middle class (despite the BMW in their driveway).

Making Suggestions at Japanese Companies

Anyone who's worked in Japan probably knows the frustration of making a heartfelt suggestion to one's employer, only to have it politely shot down. Of course, having an idea rejected by your superiors can happen in any country, but there's something unique about the process in Japan, somehow. Almost by our mere existence, we gaijin are on a different wavelength from the Japanese people all around us, and the fact that we see the world in a different light often causes us to notice things that Japanese would never think twice about. Sometimes this can be a good thing, like when a former ESL teacher gets the idea to start an online shop selling awesome products direct from Japan, as I did with J-List back in 1996. But more often than not, when a foreigner working for a Japanese company suggests something that could be fixed or improved, the following will result. First, the boss will use the phrase so desu ne, meaning, "Yes, that is so" -- by an accident of linguistics, the word 'so' is exactly the same in English and Japanese -- although in this case the phrase just means he's thinking about your suggestion, not necessarily agreeing. Then you'll hear the word muzukashii, which literally means "difficult" or in this case, "impossible, but I'm too nice to say that to you directly." Finally, they'll promise to kento shimasu, which means "we will study the suggestion," by which they mean they will not study the suggestion. Having what you're sure is a great idea rejected can cause you say nyoro~n and feel disappointed, although thinking back, many of the ideas I suggested to my former employers were rejected for good reasons that I just wasn't able to understand at the time.
Suggestions from foreigners are usually not accepted at Japanese organizations, for various reasons.

J-List T-Shirts & Special Sale!

Ever since we brought out our first "Looking for a Japanese Girlfriend" T-shirt a decade ago, J-List has been making awesome original T-shirts that our customers love. If you browse the top 50 anime and kanji T-shirt page, you can see that the new offerings like Yandere or the Code Geass "OBEY" parody are really popular now, but we have so many fun shirts to browse through, too. I love our Haruhi T-shirts, or the tribute to tsundere voice actress Rie Kugimiya, and of course any Touhou T-shirt is okay in our book. What wacky Japanese T-shirts, hoodies or hats can J-List interested you in today?
Announcing the 2010 J-List End of Fiscal Year sale! J-List's fiscal year is coming to an end, so we're doing like Japanese companies do and having a special sales event. At the end of May, the Japanese staff has to count each and every product we have in stock, every bento box and every Hello Kitty personal massager. Since we'd much rather sell it to you rather than count it, we're going to have a sale for the rest of the month, giving you a gift coupon for $5 for every $100 you spend (shipping not included). This means you have a great excuse to add another T-shirt or box of Calorie Mate to your order to get to the next $100 level. The coupons can be used on either website and never expire.