Friday, October 01, 2010

Meet Me at the Vending Machine

I write a lot about how learning a foreign language like Japanese helps you understand how your own brain works. One thing I've observed is that your brain will always try to force a new and unknown concept it encounters into a pattern it's already familiar with. When my nephew came to visit us from the U.S., we'd just bought a car with the rather odd name of Mazda Bongo Friendee, which sounded so strange to him, I could almost hear the gears in his brain turn as he tried to make sense of the name. Back in college I was going to meet a Japanese friend so we could study together. She had told me, "Meet me by the vending machine," using the Japanese word jido-hanbaiki (lit. "automatic selling machine"). My brain failed to connect this word to anything useful, however, so it substituted the closest pattern it could find: the English word "bike" which sounded slightly similar to the Japanese word. I therefore stood waiting for my friend by the bike racks for half an hour, wondering where she was.
My brain heard jido-hanbaiki as "bike" for some reason.

The Japanese and Mayonaise

I saw there was an 8-car pile-up on a freeway in Osaka a few days ago, which resulted in three minor injuries. The cause of the accident was a huge spill of Kewpie mayonnaise that happened when several boxes of the condiment fell off a truck, spilling their contents on the road and creating a big slippery mess. The Japanese are great lovers of mayonnaise, and eat more than 3.5 lbs of the stuff each year. Not only is it enjoyed along with ketchup on french fries (mix them together, it's really good), it's an important flavoring in many traditional foods like yakisoba noodles, takoyaki octopus balls and okonomiyaki. Mayonnaise can also be found on pizza, usually combined with corn, and while I've come to love many of the foods found in Japan, I still can't get excited about that one.
The Japanese really love mayonnaise. I do too, mostly.

October 1st Brings Changes to Japan

October 1st is the day for koromo-gae (lit. "clothes changing"), when millions of Japanese high school students switch from their summer to their winter uniforms. I have to admit, having so many people doing the exact same thing on the same morning without being told to always kind of freaked my "individualistic" American sensibilities out a little. For smokers in Japan, today is also the day the price of cigarettes goes up due to a tax increase passed by the Democratic Party of Japan. For the past few weeks, smokers have been buying cartons to stock up ahead of the tax, which pushes the price of a pack of Mild Seven's all the way up to $4.90, still considerably cheaper than the $10+ price for cigarettes in New York. The rising cost of tobacco coupled with the recent increase in smoking bans in Japanese cities has caused the number of smokers here to decline in recent decades. When I got here in 1991, 60% of men smoked and there was nowhere a person could go to get away from it, but now the smoking rates have been cut in half and are still dropping.
A new tobacco tax is causing many smokers to kick the habit.

J-List Anniversary Sale & Pocky News

J-List customers are enjoying having our selection of Pocky, Japan Kit Kat and other great chocolate products back on the site, and we're having fun filling all the orders. J-List has great stock of awesome chocolate stick snacks like today's new Green Tea Fran, Japan Oreos, the new "grown up" Japan Kit Kat in the black box, and more. Click here to see all the new and restocked Japanese snacks, or here to see the top 50 snacks on the site now.
In addition to being the start of winter school uniform season, October also marks the anniversary of
our little company J-List, which we founded 14 years ago. That's a long time in Internet Years, and we'd like to thank each and everyone of our awesome customers for their support along the way. We've got some surprises for you later this month, but meanwhile please enjoy a free shipping sale on all PC dating-sim games. It's a great time to stock up on a few of our English-translated game titles!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tipping in Japan

Japan is unique among industrialized nations in that the concept of tipping never caught on, and is in fact about as alien to people here as taking your shoes off before entering a house would be in the States. You can expect service with a smile wherever you eat (as a wise gaijin once observed, "in Japan, you know no one is horking in your food"), and if you were to leave a tip on the table you can be pretty sure the staff would run after you to return the money to you. While it's certainly nice to not have to tip when eating out, there are times and I receive exceptionally good service and want to show my appreciation, but the lack of a custom of tipping makes this impossible -- it would actually be quite rude to even try in most cases. Near our house there's a miniature F-1 race track that has a nice Italian restaurant overlooking it -- apparently the owner loved F-1 so much that he built his own track just for fun, or maybe as a tax write-off, since I can't imagine he makes a profit. The restaurant has live jazz music several nights per month, and we take our kids to enjoy the performances, but there isn't so much as a tip jar on the piano for us to show our thanks to the musicians who make our dinner so special.
Japan has awesome service yet no tipping.

Takeshi's TV Tackle

Sometimes Japan seems to be a terribly dysfunctional place. Changing leaders every few months and building the Panama Canal worth of public works projects each year aren't the hallmarks of most effective of countries. At other times, however, Japan can be surprisingly competent. The other day I caught an interesting TV show called Takeshi's TV Tackle: 50 Citizens vs. Japan Diet Members Anger Battle! In the show, internationally famous comedian and director "Beat" Takeshi brought in a panel of distinguished Japanese politicians and sat them down in a studio with different groups of average Japanese who talked about the problems they were facing today. In one segment farmers detailed the challenges they faced turning a profit from their crops in Japan's overly structured agricultural market, while a group of hostesses from Ginza's famous drinking establishments detailed how deflation was impacting their businesses, followed by truck drivers who expressed anger over politicians' failure to make good on their promises to make Japanese freeways truly "free." In each segment, each group listened and told their side of things, and there was real discussion happening back and forth, so that each group ended up with a better understanding of the opinions held by the other side. Sadly, there's a lot more one-sided demagoguery and emotional button-pushing (*cough* Fox News *cough*) and a lot less open communication on similar shows in the U.S., and I'd love to see reasonable programs like Takeshi's TV Tackle imitated more. 

As long as I'm wishing, I'd also like a pony.
Beat Takeshi's TV Tackle promotes open discussion of the issues.

Autumn is "Nikuman" Season

Autumn is here, and that means the return of nikuman (niku-mahn), those delicious Chinese steamed buns that they sell in convenience stores. When it's cold outside, there's nothing better than munching on one of these hot meat-filled buns, which are so soft and tasty and warm, you don't feel the cold at all. If you should ever tire of the standard flavor, there are variations, too: an-man with Japanese sweet beans inside, curry-man made with spicy curry, or another favorite of mine, pizza-man, featuring pizza sauce and cheese. Autumn is also the season of School Sports Day, when parents go to their children's school to watch them run relays and try to be the fastest in the school. It's a great time to show how proud you are of your kids -- which is called oya-baka or "parent-fool" -- and jockey for the best position so you can capture video of your son or daughter crossing the finish line with your brand-new Panasonic video camera.
Nikuman are among my favorite Japanese foods.

Announcing The Return of Chocolate to J-List!

J-List is happy to announce the start of chocolate season for 2010-2011! As you probably know, we're forced to remove all chocolate products from our lineup of Japanese snackery due to the extreme heat and humidity of the Japanese summer. Now that summer is over, we're able to bring you all the best in Japanese chocolates, and we've loaded J-List up with the most awesome new flavors of Pocky and Japan Kit Kat, including some of the last stock ever of really awesome flavors, like Green Tea Sakura. Browse the new products now!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Helicopter Crash in Mononoke Forest

There was an unfortunate helicopter accident on Japan's scenic island of Yakushima yesterday in which two crew members lost their lives. When I heard the location of the accident, I immediately wondered if the poor Kodama and the Forest Spirit were okay. Yakushima is a Pacific island about 500 km south of Japan's southernmost island of Kyushu, and it's blessed with some of the richest and most luscious old-growth forest in the country. Hayao Miyazaki used the ancient forest as the inspiration for Princess Mononoke, and you can really see the vividness in his film. This has been a bad year for helicopter accidents this year, with at least two other fatal mishaps in recent months.
Yakushima is one of the most beautiful places in Japan.

A Farewell to Arms

Over the weekend I had the sad job of paying a final visit to my wife's uncle Kumakichi, who's in the hospital with advanced pneumonia. He's the one who fought in World War II, serving as a gunner on the Battleship Ise. Many's the time my family and I would go over to his house for a Japanese-style Oshogatsu (New Year's Day), eating mikan oranges with our legs in the kotatsu while playing traditional Japanese card games. Having a family member who fought in World War II was a very interesting thing, and I got to hear many tales, like how Japanese sailors always wore extra long fundoshi (traditional underwear) so that if they ended up in the water they could unwrap the cloth and trail it behind them, which made sharks think they were too large to attack. Since my kids are of both the U.S. and Japan, I wanted to expose them to these stories as much as possible, and I know Kumakichi was happy to have someone show an interest in his reminiscings. Truth be told, no one else in the family wanted to hear about the war, but I was always happy to listen (though I would sometimes overlay Space Battleship Yamato BGM in my mind as I did so).

My wife's uncle joined the Japanese navy in 1943, after the Battle of Midway robbed Japan of many of its aircraft carriers. As a result, the Ise was retrofitted into a half-battleship, half-carrier, able to fire great volleys from the front and launch 11 fighters off the back -- pretty bad-ass if you ask me. By any account, Kumakichi was a very lucky man. First, he had a horizontal scar across his cheek where an American bullet had barely missed him, and if his head had been a centimeter to the right he would have been killed. His ship was to have been sent out with the Yamato on her final mission, but there was no fuel so they had to stay docked at the shipyards at Kure. Finally, after the atomic bombing of nearby Hiroshima, the captain picked eight crew members out of a line to go to the city and see what had happened, eight men who never returned. My wife's uncle had been the tenth man in that line. Anyway, thanks very much Uncle Kumakichi for all the awesome stories!

A real photograph of the Ise being attacked in 1945 (full size version here).

J-List T-Shirt Update

J-List has a line of interesting anime and/or kanji-themed T-shirts which are printed by our hardworking staff in San Diego. Choose from wacky anime designs like our tribute to Tsundere or Yandere anime girls, or check out our popular Touhou Project shirt. Our legendary "Now Accepting Applications for a Japanese Girlfriend" T-shirt might start up some fun conversations, and we've got other wacky offerings too, like "Warning: Death from Overwork" or "No Foreigners Allowed" (the latter of which I accidentally wore to Narita Airport once, heh). View the top 50 J-List T-shirts here!