Friday, June 04, 2010

Japan's New Prime Minister is Laughing at the Super Intellect

As expected, the next Prime Minister of Japan has been chosen, and it's former Finance Minister Naoto Kan (warning, link contains sound). I've been a fan of Mr. Kan's ever since he did the right thing during a terrible scandal involving hemophilia patients who'd received tainted blood due to inept government policies, and I'm sure he's as well equipped as anyone to handle the changes Japan is facing. Hailing from Yamaguchi Prefecture on the westernmost tip of the main Japanese island of Honshu -- it's famous for fugu, the blowfish that almost killed Homer Simpson -- Mr. Kan is the first Japanese leader in a while that isn't a "thoroughbred," the term the Japanese media uses to describe blue-blooded politicians whose fathers and grandfathers also served as Prime Ministers. Incredibly, Mr. Kan is the 14th Japanese leader to hold office since I came to Japan in 1991, a period that saw only four leaders each in the U.S. and U.K. In fact, Japan has had twice as many leaders as the U.S. despite having half our history. What does this say about Japan? It's hard to know for sure, but one idea might be deru kui wa utareru, or "the standing nail is driven." According to this theory, the long-standing tradition of Japanese disliking anyone who stands out or rises above everyone else causes people to fail to support their leaders after they've taken office.
Naoto Kan is the 94th Prime Minister of Japan, and he's laughing at the superior intellect

I Live in the Detroit of Pachinko

Near our house, we can see the Sphinx, the Statue of Liberty, and many other interesting wonders of world. These are pachinko parlors, a major source of entertainment for many Japanese men and women in Japan. An odd game which I don't pretend to understand, you basically buy a bucket of balls for $50, then sit for hours trying to hold a controller in just the right position to make most of the balls go into certain holes in the pachinko machine. Since "gambling" is illegal in Japan, except for certain events like horse, boat and bicycle racing, you don't win money if you get more balls than you started out with -- you get valuable prizes which you redeem for cash at a shady building next to the pachinko parlor. For whatever reason, J-List's home prefecture of Gunma is the "Detroit" of the pachinko world, with several of the largest manufacturers located here.
There's a lot of crossover between anime and pachinko these days.

The Anime Brain

Learning a foreign language like Japanese is fun because it makes you more aware of how your own brain works. Like the "mystery of translation" I've written about before, the way the actual act of translating, say, a line from a dating-sim game we've licensed is not done by my conscious mind, but instead by a deeper place inside my brain. I mentally place a word or sentence that I want to translate into a special place in my mind and -- ding! -- a few seconds later I have the translation I need, just like cooking something in the microwave. I'm also amazed at the way the human brain can identify the subtleties of different human voices. I'm currently watching A Certain Scientific Railgun, enjoying the antics of the strong yuri character Kuroko. The first time I heard her character speak I knew instantly that she was voiced by talented seiyu Satomi Arai, who also played the kind-hearted ninja-maid from Code Geass. What a piece of work is the human brain!
Kuroko (left) is one of the more interesting characters in anime these days.

iTunes Japan Cards, For Your Anime Song Listening Pleasure

J-List offers the iTunes Japan prepaid cards, which are very popular with our customers as a way of plugging into Japan digitally. Looking for all the awesome music to the Railgun/Index anime series? It's available on iTunes Japan. How about the soundtrack to the new Evangelion 2.22 movie, or Hikaru Utada's eerily beautiful ending theme/remix? Got that too. Or see the full lineup of Miku Hatsue songs that are available. Of course the iTunes Japan cards also enable you to buy Japan-only applications for iPhone/iPad. Why not order a card or three now? (Note: these links are iTunes store links. If they don't come up for you, log out of your current account and try again.)

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Paradigm Shift in Japan: No Street Names

One of the challenges of getting used to my new life in Japan was the total lack of street names, which made it difficult for me to learn my way around in my new city. Except for certain major thoroughfares like National Road 17, which will take you to Tokyo, roads here lack names of any kind and are referred to abstractly, e.g. "the road between the elementary school and the convenience store." Adapting a French model, Japan breaks their land into prefectures (ken), cities (shi), and towns (machi or cho), with the towns divided into smaller blocks like 3-chome (third block), and so on. A Japanese address looks something like "Gunma-ken Isesaki-shi Sakura-cho 2-19-15" (in Japanese, 群馬県伊勢崎市桜町2−19−15), but if you ever try to visit a place based on this information you'll be driving around in circles, as the only people who can make sense of a Japanese address are postal workers. Instead, to find a given location you nearly always need a map, which is why most every printed advertisement will have a map indicating how to get to shop. Car GPS systems are also a very nice thing to have when driving in Japan.
Most ads and websites will feature simple maps to help you get to a place.

A Trip to the Eye Doctor

I've been bothered by a dry eye condition over the past few days, really not a fun experience, and yesterday I went to the doctor to get checked out. As is often the case, the doctor who looked at my eyes had a bit of a complex about English, since all doctors study several years of English medical terminology yet seldom get to use that knowledge. Despite the fact that I was talking to him in proper Japanese while I explained my symptoms, he felt compelled to diagnose me using English, using terms that I'd never heard in my life. I've lived in Japan long enough to know that Japanese expect native English speakers to know every word ever coined in the language, so did my best to nod and play along.
Asuka says, everyone take care of your eyes, m'kay?

Sayonara, Hatoyama-san

Well, Japan is bidding farewell to yet another Prime Minister, with Yukio Hatoyama's announcement that he'll be quitting the job after eight months, along with embattled kingmaker Ozawa. While the main reasons for Hatoyama's departure are his failure to find an alternate location for the Futenma U.S. base in Okinawa and money-related scandals -- he "forgot" to declare $10 million in payments he received from his mother, heir to the Bridgestone tire fortune -- there are other reasons his cabinet lost public support. In order to get voters to to give them a majority, the Democratic Party of Japan had to make some big promises in their "Manifesto," including paying families $250 per child per month and making all Japan's toll freeways "free," all of which would be paid for by canceling a few unnecessary public works projects. The reality has proved more challenging, and several campaign promises have been put on hold indefinitely. Who will replace Hatoyama as Japan's top leader? Smart-looking Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada? National Policy Minister Yoshito Sengoku, with his cool-sounding name? The Star Trek fan in me is rooting for Finance Minister Naoto Kan, because no one would ever forget his name. KHAAAAN!

As soon as the next PM is chosen, we'll open the poole on how many months he'll last and what his reason for quitting will be ("bad health" etc.). 

Fade to Black: Hatoyama and Ozawa announce their resignation.

Traditional 'Dagashi' Showa Era Candy at J-List

J-List is a great place to find the newest and coolest stuff from Japan. But you can also find the oldest stuff, including the traditional candy of the Showa Period, called dagashi. From classic Sakuma Drops (as seen in Grave of the Fireflies) to the new Kyoto-style traditional candy and awesome Kompeito, J-List has a huge selection for you to browse. One candy that's fun is neri ame or "kneading candy" which is a liquid candy you mix with chopsticks for several minutes, until it becomes firm enough to eat. Best of all, these traditional candies are very inexpensive, so you can get a great sampling for $20 or so.

Monday, May 31, 2010

What Color is the Sun?

Sometimes something as simple as color can illustrate interesting cultural differences. If I asked you what color the sun was, you might answer that it's yellow, or orange, or white. However, many Japanese will tell you that it's "red." This seems to be a difference in cultural perception -- the red circle in the Japanese flag is called hi-no-maru or circle-of-the-sun, and the Japanese "see" this color when they look at the sun. There are other cultural snafus you can encounter when dealing with colors. Westerners have eyes that are blue or green or hazel or brown, but if you ask a Japanese person what color their eyes are, they'll always answer "black" since to their thinking, the center of the eye is what you're asking about, not the iris. Then there's the tradition of referring to certain shades of green with the word aoi, which means "blue," which causes mass confusion among foreigners who can't understand how green traffic lights could possibly be thought of as being blue.
Little things like how colors are perceived can different from country to country.

Traditional Card Game for Learning About Local History

The Japanese are good at coming up with innovative ways of committing information to memory. Like the man who memorized pi to 100,000 decimal places by using mnemonic hooks that made it easier for his brain to visualize each successive number. One tool used to teach local history in my home prefecture of Gunma is called Jomo Karuta. Here's how it works: a deck of cards with a single hiragana character on each is laid out at random, while two or more children hover over the cards, ready to play. Using a second deck of cards, an adult reads historical phrases like "Gunma, in the shape of a crane in flight" or "Ikaho hot springs, famous bathing spot in Japan" and the kids try to grab the card that corresponds to that phrase. In addition to teaching kids about their prefecture's history, the game strengthens family bonds, since my daughter's mother and grandmother both played the same game. Japanese teach many subjects to kids using a variation of the karuta game system -- there's even a Queen's Blade Karuta game on J-List now.
Jomo Karuta is a game for teaching local history.

On the Care and Feeding of Japanese Women

Over the years, I've made various observations about the care and feeding of Japanese females based on my own personal experiences with students, girlfriends and my wife. For one thing, Japanese women tend to be punctual, and can never seem to figure out why when I say "I'll be there in ten minutes" I mean an hour and a half. Japanese love refined white rice and usually eat it three times a day, which has the unfortunate result of giving most women here chronic constipation. From my own viewpoint as a gaijin, Japanese females are likely to have some strange ideas, like how a glass of water that's been sitting out for fifteen minutes must be thrown away because "there's dust in it now." They nearly all have feet that are exactly 23.5 cm in size, so if you ever need to buy shoes for a Japanese woman, go with that size and you'll probably be safe. I've also known several Japanese females who had a bizarre obsession with plucking my facial hairs, delighting in the sound the hairs make as they're pulled out by the roots. What's up with that? I wish I knew. (If you share our fascination with Japanese females, we recommend our popular "Now Accepting Applications for a Japanese Girlfriend" T-shirts, hats and hoodies.)
I do my best to understand Japanese women, but usually fail.

Great Anime T-Shirts for Summer

J-List carries a line of fun anime T-shirts, hoodies and embroidered hats that are stocked in San Diego, and if you need any wacky otaku clothing, please let us know! Our shirts are hand-printed by our dedicated staff in San Diego, not mass-produced in Asia, and all sizes are the full U.S. sizes. You can view all anime and kanji T-shirts, view anime T-shirt for girls and kids, or see the top 50 T-shirts on the site right now.