Friday, August 10, 2012

Unique Strategies for Learning Japanese

One thing serious learners of a language need to have in place are concrete strategies for their success. What's fun is that just about any strategy will work, as long as you're dedicated to it and adjust it from time to time. The other day I noticed some envelopes propped up against the TV, and when I asked my wife about it, she said, "Yes, I was watching the Fox show 'The City' to practice my English. But they show Japanese subtitles, so I put the envelopes there to hide them, forcing myself to listen to the spoken words." One strategy I've employed while learning Japanese was translating and transcribing the lyrics of songs I liked, which enabled me to sing them at karaoke and also made it easy to memorize the vocabulary words that appeared in the songs. I went through a literary phase, reading Japanese novels and short stories by Japanese writers, and one trick I learned was to get an audiobook of a work and listen to it while I read along in written form, which really helped my comprehension. There are many other strategies for learning -- I've heard from customers who primarily learn Japanese by playing import video games -- which sounds like a great way to learn. Remember, if you're interested in learning a little Japanese language or a lot, J-List has products that can help.

Let's learn Japanese through video games!

Boxed Gift Season in Japan (Chuugen)

We've been eating well at home lately, with delicious ham and fresh mangoes and other good things. The reason is that it's chuugen season, the summer gift-giving period when people exchange various gifts -- everything from beer to coffee to those $50 honeydew melons -- to thank the people in their lives for their help over the past half-year. Chuugen gifts are exchanged between neighbors, between employees and employers (suspiciously, just before the summer bonus season), and also between companies: J-List trades gifts with the various distributors and eroge companies we work with to keep relations running smoothly. Of course no gift in Japan is ever received without a return gift, called o-kaeshi, a rule that must always be followed. These seasonal gifts are very important to Japan's domestic economy, and the competition to create gift boxes that will be popular is fierce. This year the trend has been towards gifts from different regions around Japan, like sake from the still-recovering Tohoku region of Japan or fruit from Okinawa.

Boxed gifts for the chuugen summer gift-giving season.

Cute Nyanko Earphone Cat Accessories from Japan

There's no doubt about it: we have a lot of really cute products featuring cats on the site, from those cute Doki Doki Nyanko egg-shaped cat plush toys to those brain-activated cat ears. One of the most popular items on the site now are the Nyanko Earphone Jack Accessories, which feature little cats that sit on you iPhone 4 or 4S and look cute. Compatible with other similarly shaped phones under the "if I fits, I sits" principle.

Nagoya and Toyota

As with all all countries, each Japanese city naturally has its own style and flair. Kyoto is the ancient capital of the nation, and people there have a unique attitude and linguistic dialect to match (hmm, that kind of sounds like Boston, doesn't it?). Osaka is a business city where a standard greeting between acquaintances is moukarimakka?, which means "Are you making lots of money in your business affairs?" Yokohama and Nagasaki are port cities that were greatly influenced by their early contact with Westerners. Then there's Nagoya, in central Japan, a commercial city famous for its competitive business climate that can break any company...or prove it has what it takes to succeed. Some of Japan's most famous companies hail from Nagoya, including my favorite curry restaurant chain and a car company you may have heard of called Toyota. I've heard it said that in Nagoya, land is really expensive so people know they need to work hard if they ever want to own some, yet in J-List's home prefecture of Gunma, it's not that hard to buy land so people people here are much less driven to succeed.

Toyota is a classic Nagoya company, driven to success through its environment.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

How Taxes Work in Japan

Running an international anime company for the past 16 years has been interesting, and I've learned a lot about both countries in the process. As a general rule, legal institutions that exist in the U.S. are also present in Japan, and if you have a concept in one country it will probably translate into something similar on the other end. Part of this comes from Western countries following the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) so that their laws can inter-operate, but a lot of Japan's lock-step movement with the U.S. comes from a deeper tradition of generally following behind us in all things -- for example, Japan's version of the 401(k) is ingeniously named the "Japan 401(k)." There's one concept that exists in Japan which is quite different from the States, however. It's called gensen choshu and it means withholding taxes on income at the source, which is what happens when you get your paycheck with tax already taken out -- but in Japan, these taxes are per-deducted in a wider range of situations. If we were to hire a programmer or artist to do some work for us, we're required by law to per-deduct their taxes when we pay them, hence for a $1000 job we'd pay him $850 and send the rest to the Tax Ministry in their name, presumably to keep the payment from going unreported. This is a minor inconvenience, but I was surprised to learn that investment income is also pre-deducted in the same way. So when my wife puts money in a CD at 1% interest (still considered a fairly good return in Japan), she actually only gets .85% from it, which means she's potentially losing up to a year of earnable interest from other investments because the taxes are taken off the top instead of calculated at the end of the year. I'm sure taxpayers would rise up and revolt over something like this in most countries, but sadly the Japanese mantra of sho ga nai ("it can't be helped") keeps people from demanding change here.

A cute graphic explaining how the Japanese government spends our tax money.

Fun Japanese Words: "Ki"

Sometimes part of the fun of studying a language like Japanese is "surfing" the linguistic elements that are different from anything found in your own native language. One kanji character you encounter a lot is ki, which expresses ideas related to spirit, soul, nature, mood, feeling, intention or atmosphere. The ki character is found in some of the first words a student of Japanese encounters, like genki (happy, energetic), tenki (weather) and kuuki (air), so it's quite approachable right from the start. The concept of ki (chi in Chinese) is central to martial arts and yoga, and feng shui is essentially the Chinese art of arranging your stuff so the "universal energy" of ki can flow freely around you. (George Lucas clearly drew his inspiration for the Force from ki energy.) The word can be found in several common Japanese idioms, such as ki o tsukete (be careful; literally "fix your body's energy and attention on the task at hand"), or ki wo tsukau (to be considerate of; literally "to use your ki energy on behalf of another person"). In the popular anime Hyouka by Kyoto Animation, in which a group of kids goes around solving mysteries (though they lack a talking dog named Scooby Doo), the character Eru Chitanda regularly announces that she's found a new mystery to obsess over using the phrase ki ni narimasu! ("This makes me curious, and can't stop thinking about it!").

Eru's catchphrase is ki ni narimasu!

The Physics of Anime

It's fun to analyze the physics of anime, which govern everything from the properties of Pokeballs to the unique effects of gravity on oppai. There's that tendency of eyebrows to be visible "over" a character's hair, allowing for accurate communication of emotions to the viewer without the hair getting in the way (nevermind that this is impossible), plus the ability of some characters to spontaneously expel gallons of tears or blood when crying or getting a nosebleed. Recently there's been a trend in characters wearing glasses, since moe is at its essence all about the little defects and imperfections in characters that make them charming, and what's cuter than really bad vision? Naturally there's a body of unique physical phenomena that govern glasses, for example their ability to "bend" light around the side of the frames so we can see the eyes of the characters from any angle. Characters who wear glasses frequently need to adjust them at dramatic moments, yet for some reason the glasses are somehow in no danger of falling off during combat. Then there's the "shiny lens effect" seen whenever a character starts receding into their own delusional world for some reason.

The strange physics of eyebrows and glasses in anime.

J-List Will Be At AniMegaCon This Year

We love to attend anime conventions in the U.S., though we don't get to as many of them as we'd like. The J-List is happy to announce that we'll be in Las Vegas August 17-19 for AniMegaCon, a new convention we think has a lot of potential. In addition to cool Japanese products from J-List, you can find lots of guests, an amazing maid cafe plus a free hentai video room sponsored by us. Hope to see you at the show!

Monday, August 06, 2012

Macross Meets Led Zeppelin

I've written before about my amusing interactions with Tomo, the J-List employee who keeps our site stocked with DVDs, import games and Touhou products. He grew up listening to Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and the other great bands of the U.S. and Britain, teaching himself English at a young age so he could properly appreciate the depth of his favorite songs. He took it for granted that any American would naturally know everything about these bands...until he started working for me, someone who has always been focused on Japan. One of the most important moments of my life was seeing the 1984 film Macross: Do You Remember Love?, the masterpiece by Studio Nue and Tatsunoko Production that redefined what everyone thought animation could achieve back in the 80s. When Tomo asked me why the Macross Blu-rays we've got on the site were selling so well despite being from a 30 year old show, I did my best to communicate how anime fans of my generation felt about the movie, though I'm not sure he understood, as we don't speak each other's cultural language. Of course I'm very happy to have the film on Blu-ray, which comes with a gorgeous region-free Playstation 3 game that's one of the best anime-based games I've ever played. If you remember love, grab a copy now!

Macross was a big influence on my life.

Japanese Costco Update

Over the weekend I took my life into my own hands and visited the local Costco that the company was kind enough to open near the J-List offices, braving the crowds to buy Starbucks coffee, A&W root beer and cheese that actually has some flavor to it, instead of the bland varieties sold in Japanese supermarkets. Since Costco stores in Japan have the same layouts as in the U.S., right down to the signs advertising "USDA Choice Beef," it can be a disorienting place to visit, making me almost want to pay for my purchases in dollars instead of yen. I'm not quite sure why but something about going to Costco makes Japanese people bring out their most interesting Engrish T-shirts, and as I shopped I had fun observing shirts that said A VALIANT BATTLE or MICKEY MOUSE, THE LONG-LASTING FRIEND or GET BACK TO YOUR ROOTS. It was quite entertaining to see.

Japanese Costco stores are exactly the same as those found in the U.S.

Japan and the Art of Apologizing

One thing about living in Japan: it will really teach you how to apologize well, since the Japanese language is extremely well suited for showing contrition and humility to others. There are casual ways to express regret, from sumimasen (excuse me, I beg your pardon) to gomen nasai (I'm very sorry), as well as complex formal language for expressing sorrow over a politician's scandal or invading your country 70 years ago. Apologizing for something (a wrong you did someone, an error you made at work) is considered a virtue here, a person taking responsibility for something he did wrong rather than pushing the blame onto others. The core purpose of Japan's justice system is to encourage those who have done something wrong to reflect on their actions -- called hansei in Japanese -- as the first step to their rehabilitation. This is why police often seem obsessed with trying to get suspects to confess their crimes (often to a fault).

Living in Japan will teach you the art of apologizing.

School Days Internet Download Edition Goes Live

We've got some good news: the Internet Download Edition of our hit animated visual novel School Days is finally here! By customer request, you can now buy the greatest fully-animated eroge ever made and download it from anywhere in the world. Of course the game is positively huge -- a whopping 11GB -- so we naturally recommend that you opt for the normal or Collector's Edition on DVD-ROM, but it's good to have a download option if you prefer that method of delivery. In other good news, we've released the first patch for School Days, which improves several aspects of the game -- see this post for information on the patch if you already have the game.