Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Unhealthy Food

It's interesting being back in the U.S., because I get to experience that rarest of sensations, reverse culture shock, when things I see in my home country surprise me because of my years spent in Japan. I am often surprised at how unhealthy food is advertised at people by companies, such as AM/PM Mini Mart telling us that we should all live the "good life" and treat ourselves to a candy bar today, and that "more is more, at AM/PM." Or Taco Bell promoting "Fourthmeal," a meal between dinner and breakfast that supposedly we should all be eating. I'm a big fan of brewed iced tea, and make sure to drink it whenever I'm grabbing lunch, even if it's in a fairly unhealthy place like McDonald's or Taco Bell. But several times this trip I've found myself being told sorry, we don't have unsweetened iced tea, would I like Raspberry Blast™ Super Sweet Iced Tea instead? It brings a tear to my eye, really. If you're looking for a refreshing and healthy drink, we recommend Japanese mugi cha (barley tea), a great gift from Japan to the world.
You don't see this kind of unhealthy food advertising in Japan.

Deflation and Japan

For the past fifteen years, Japan has been fighting against the spectre of defure or deflation, in which prices decline in real terms rather than rise slightly year-to-year. While having things get cheaper sounds pretty cool, in reality deflation is bad because it can smother economic growth, cause factories to sit idle and cause the economy to shrink despite the fact that everyone is working hard. Since I visit the U.S. once or twice a year, I often notice when things get more expensive than they were the last time, but this certainly isn't the norm for Japan, where prices pretty rise rarely. Actually, I can only remember a few things that actually got more expensive in the nearly two decades I've lived in Japan: Coca-Cola went from 100 to 120 yen, the train fares got raised once, and the shop I've bought fried croquettes at for years raised the price from 50 to 60 yen. (The lady was very apologetic to me.)
It's rare for prices to rise in Japan.

The Most Famous Japanese Person In The World

The question of who the most famous Japanese person in the world is can be fun to debate. In previous eras the honor went to men like film director Akira Kurosawa, "Sukiyaki Song" creator Kyu Sakamoto, or composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. Novelist Yukio Mishima was another Japanese persona who enjoyed widespread fame in his day, and he had what has to be one of the most unique deaths in the 20th century, trying to inspire a pro-Emperor coup d'etat among Japan's military then committing ritual disembowelment (Seppuku) when it didn't work out. So who is the most famous Japanese person in the world today? The answer will depend a lot on who you ask. Anime fans might pick animation director Hayao Miyazaki, while sports fans might choose pro golfer Ryo Ishikawa, and Hollywood superstar Ken Watanabe would also be a good candidate, especially with the success of Inception. But you never know who will be the most famous Japanese person among different groups. For example, in Indonesia the honor goes to saucy JAV film starlet Maria Ozawa, who is a household name in the country, for some reason.
Who do you think is the most famous Japanese person in the world?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Creative Like a Child

"If Burger King married Dairy Queen, their child would be Jack in the Box." This bit of wisdom was uttered by my Japanese son one day when we were visiting the U.S., and it seemed like a very astute thing for a (then) eight-year-old to say. Every parent knows how creative children can be, making up nonsensical new words in ways adults never could, bound as we are by social norms and expectations. The cool thing is, when you learn a foreign language like Japanese, you get to be just as creative, as you twist your new language this way and that, exploring the boundaries just like children do. This "linguistic second childhood" is also useful as a defense when someone wants to know why you're still watching Gundam or Macross or Evangelion at your age. Since I started learning Japanese in college in 1987, linguistically I'm still only 23 years old!
I'll ignore the obvious In n' Out joke.

Japanese Foot Superstitions

The other day I happened to see my newphew's bare foot, and I noticed that his middle toe was longer than his big toe, and I told him, "Well, it looks like you're going to go farther in life than your parents did." The Japanese superstition that you'll surpass your parents if you have a long middle toe has no basis in fact, but coming from the West it's one more wacky things to discover about the place. There are other foot-related superstitions in Japan, for example, if you cut your toenails at night, you won't be able to be with your parents when they die. Also, if you want to know the weather tomorrow, do what Japanese kids do and throw your shoe as hard as you can. If it lands upright, it will be sunny tomorrow; if on its side, it will be cloudy; and if upside-down, it will rain.
I your middle toe longer than your big toe?

Samurai in New York in 1860?

If you're in the New York area, you might consider checking out the exhibition Samurai in New York: The First Japanese Delegation, which features photographs and other mementos from the first group of Japanese who visited New York back in 1860, arriving on the Kanrin-maru, Japan's first steamship. This was just six years after Commodore Matthew C. Perry had forced open Japan's doors to trade with the U.S., and the delegation -- which included several of modern Japan's "founding fathers" including Yukichi Fukuzawa, who now appears on the 10,000 yen note -- was treated to parades everywhere they went. I've always been fascinated by this era in Japan's history 150 years ago. The country had been essentially closed to all contact for nearly 250 years, essentially frozen in time, and the arrival of those "Black Ships" must have been like first contact with UFOs. I wonder if there were any Japan otakus around back in 1860? (The exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York runs through November.)
The first samurais to visit New York in 1860 made quite a splash.