Friday, July 30, 2010

WTF, Japan?

No matter how long a person lives in Japan, there are always things that can bring on what expats call a "Japan moment," the feeling of utter amazement at something bizarre you've just encountered. Maybe it's something cute, like a big truck playing the Main Street Electrical Street Parade song as it backs up instead of a boring beep-beep-beep sound, or that first time seeing the plastic Colonel Sanders in front of KFC wearing his "Santa Wear" (Santa Claus Suit). Maybe it's a food item, like strawberry and whipped cream sandwiches, or the ham and cheese on French Toast complete with syrup pre-applied to the bread I saw once. You never know what will bring on that sense of "only-in-Japan" next -- driving through an extremely rural town and coming across a replica of the American Statue of Liberty? Seeing a nondescript building with "Oh!" carefully painted on it? Meeting someone who has taught English for 30 years yet has never been outside of Japan, and who asks you "Where is your domicile?" instead of something simple like "Where do you live?"
Great placement on that door, guys.

Sushi in the U.S. vs. Japan

Normally when I come to the U.S. the last thing I want to do is eat Japanese food, since there there are so many other choices here, like Mexican and Thai and Chinese. (Chinese food does exist in Japan, but in a very different form from what you'd find at Panda Express, often melded so closely with everyday Japanese dishes that no one can tell the two apart.) This trip, however, I've been in the U.S. for so long doing stuff with my American family that I started really craving nihonshoku (Japanese cuisine), so last night I took the family out for the best sushi I know of in San Diego. Sushi in California and Japan are naturally a little different. First of all, the most common way to eat sushi in Japan is kaiten-zushi or conveyor belt sushi, which is cheap and convenient, although traditional places are common, too (though they are pricier). We laughed out loud at some of the menu items with names that would never fly in Japan, like Kabuki, Last Samurai, Yakuza and Gaijin Rolls. As is often the case when eating "Japanese" food in the U.S., the Master (the owner of the shop) was Korean. Which was okay with me -- the fish was fresh and good, and he gave us kimchee (Korean pickled cabbage) to eat for free.
Sushi in the U.S. is a little different from Japan. Not bad, just different.

Big Problems in Sumo Land

Sumo wrestling is the official sport of Japan, enjoying special status and support by the Japanese government. It's more than a sport, really, since it's closely tied to Shinto religious ceremonies going back centuries, and legendary figures from Japan's history like Hideyoshi and Nobunaga were sumo aficionados, although contestants fought to the death back in those days. Recently the sport hasn't been able to catch a break due to a series of scandals that have rocked the Japan Sumo Association and its fans. It started with a marijuana scandal which resulted in several wrestlers being ejected from the sport for trafficking in illegal substances, and things got worse when a teenage wrestler in training died as a result of bullying by other members of his sumo stable. (Not sure why, but a house where a team of sumo wrestlers lives and practices is always called a 'stable' in English.) Maverick Mongolian wrestler Asashoryu was forced to quit in shame after he smashed in the face of a patron in a bar, which wasn't exactly in keeping with the hinkaku (dignity) required of Grand Sumo Champions. Now the existence of gambling ties to yakuza gangsters has come to light, which has enraged fans and caused NHK to boycott broadcasting the Nagoya tournament. I've always loved the uniquely Japanese character of sumo wrestling, and hope the sport can clean its house and get things back to normal soon.
The sumo world is facing some big problems.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Otakon 2010

Unfortunately I'm not able to attend Otakon, the awesome East-Coast anime convention, this year. But that doesn't mean you can't score some great J-List stuff, since our East Coast team will be there, with fabulous manga, dating-sim games, and J-List tissues for everyone who stops by to say hello. We'll be at booth 0119 -- see you there!

Careful When Ordering Mango Juice From a Pretty Waitress

When you learn a foreign language, you definitely need to develop a sense of humor. Like the other day when I was talking about the concept of katami, which are the treasures of a person who has died which are distributed to friends and family members. But I'd gotten the word wrong, substituting kataki, which literally means a sworn enemy who you must kill. So instead of talking about the big fur cap my father left me when he died -- otosan no katami -- I had said kataki, implying that this object was the hated enemy of my father which I was duty-bound to destroy. The best thing to do when you do screw up like that is to embrace the awkwardness, since you'll definitely never make that mistake again. And be careful when ordering mango juice from a pretty waitress...
The word manko, referring to the female genitilia, is the worst word of Japanese -- way too similar to "mango."

Visiting the Anime Holy Land

One of the coolest things an obsessive anime fan in Japan can do is seichi junrei, e.g. making a "pilgrimage to the holy land," which in this case refers to visiting places from your favorite anime series. Whether it's traveling to Lake Kizaki in Nagano Prefecture, where Please Teacher/Twins was based, trawling the backstreets of Tokyo that provided the setting for Bakemonogatari or communing with moe spirits in the K-On! school (which is a decommissioned elementary school), pretty much every anime these days is based on actual reference locations. Whenever my wife snorts at the idea of otaku traveling around Japan to visit places from their favorite anime, I remind her of her first trip to Rome, when she visited all the places Audrey Hepburn went to in the classic film Roman Holiday, even eating gelato by the Spanish Steps. Obsessions are so much fun! (By the way, we've posted a handy guide to visiting famous sites from anime series to the site today.)
You can visit the places in your favorite anime someday.

Harry Potter Loves Star Wars

"If there's a bright center to Britain, Number Four Privet Drive is the street that it's farthest from." I recently got a new TV, and proceeded to break it in by watching the nerdiest movies I could find, which naturally included Star Wars: A New Hope and the first Harry Potter film. As I watched these two movies back to back, I was struck by how similar the two main characters were, a connection I'd not made before, though it's quite obvious in retrospect. Both were delivered by bearded men to be raised by unsupportive uncles, where they would grow up after much hardship to find that they were really wizards (though one was called "Jedi"), receiving rare magical items that belonged to their fathers which would help them to defeat a Dark Lord. Anime is fun to de-construct, too, breaking down memes into their component parts and seeing what inspirations came from where -- a Hollywood movie here, a reference to an old TV show there.
Harry and Luke, heroes of a thousand faces.

Monday, July 26, 2010

San Diego Comic-Con Wrap-Up

Well, the San Diego Comic-con is over, and the J-List staff is tired, but still exhilarated. As usual, it was awesome getting to meet so many J-List fans, shake lots of hands and even sign an H-game package or two. We also handed out about 20,000 of our trademark J-List pocket tissues, too.
Goodbye to the San Diego Comic-con, we'll see you next year.

Fish Names in Japanese and English

The other day I went out to a seafood restaurant with my wife and daughter, who are visiting from Japan. As they looked to me to help them decide what to order from the menu, I discovered a strange linguistic gap in my brain: I was almost completely ignorant of fish names in English. My awakening as a lover of seafood occurred after I arrived in Japan, and as a result I could tell you the subtle differences between saba and hokke and aji, though I had no idea which was which was what on an English menu, and what we should order. Like all Japanese, my wife assumes that I know every word of English automatically because I'm a native speaker, and she can't understand how gaps in my knowledge could be possible. In the end we got sushi and were very happy with it.
I learned to love fish in Japan, and I often don't know fish names in English.

"Like, or Love?"

Suki desu ka? One of the first useful words a student of Japanese learns is how to say "like" (suki), which is pronounced quickly so that it sounds rather like the English word "ski," leading all students to immediately make the joke sukii ga suki desu ka? (Do you like skiing?), since the words sound similar. The word suki is often a student's introduction to the concept that a word or idea in one language might have many possible meanings in another language, depending on the situation. Right off the bat, suki can mean "like" (in the context of your favorite food or hobby) or "love" (when said in reference to another person). Like all Japanese words there's some ambiguity involved, which is the subject of more than a few melodramatic misunderstandings in anime and manga. For example, if a girl was looking at a cake and said suki desu, she could theoretically be expressing her love of cake, or else she could be confessing her feelings for a boy who was also in the room. Once I saw a variety show in which former JAV actress Ai Iijima walked around New York, asking Americans kyonyu suki? which sounds like "Can you ski?" in English, but is really asking if they prefer women with large oppai. It was funny to see the Americans on the show nodding their heads for the camera at her question. Try it on your friends!
In Orange Road, Madoka had to use English to clearly ask Kyosuke's feelings, since Japanese was too vague to be of use.

The 100th Anniverary of the Invasion of Korea

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Japan's invasion of the Korean peninsula, which started a 35 year period during which the entire nation of Korea was officially annexed by Japan -- high schools in Pyonyang even participated in the Koshien high school baseball tournament in Osaka, the same Koshien that's celebrated in baseball manga today. I'm going to use my great knowledge of Japan and predict that the Japanese government will issue an apology to the governments of the two Koreas over the next few weeks. I'll go out even further on a limb and state that, although this will be the eighth official apology Japan has made to Korea (this doesn't include numerous heartfelt expressions of regret by the Emperor of Japan, whose statements lack the force of law), people on the other side of the Sea of Japan the Eastern Sea will not be impressed. There will be angry words exchanged between netizens of Japan's 2ch BBS and their counterparts in South Korea, and maybe a new wave of DDOS attacks back and forth. Business as usual, in other words.

As I've written before, it's hard to know how to feel about all this. Japan did terrible things, and hasn't properly educated its young people about what it did. On the other hand, over-educating your population on every wrong that was done to you in the past, as Korea (and China) do regularly, is just unhealthy. They also beat the dead horse of Japan's WWII crimes to create a nationalistic unity, deflecting cricitism against their own failings and winning votes as good as any American politician who raises fears of attacks by Muslim terrorists if the other party wins the election does. Japan did bad things, but part of the reason we judge them so harshly is that it happened during 20th century, the era of photography, rather than in the 19th century or early, when Great Britain was doing the exact same things -- creating an empire by force, starting with the country that lay immediately to the west of it -- without it being documented photographically. Or have I lived in Japan so long that I am hopelessly biased to their side of things? Love to hear your thoughts.

Maybe South Korea can take this opportunity to thank Japan for whatever apology that is coming and say, "Okay now, it's been a century, you don't need to apologize any more. We're moving on." But that would probably be overly optimistic.
Tensions ahead for Korea and Japan?