Friday, August 24, 2012

Taboo Subjects and the Japanese

J-List has a popular Facebook page as well as a Twitter feed, and I sometimes like to throw out questions to my readers and get their feedback. One user asked, "Do Japanese avoid topics like religion or politics when talking with friends?" which I thought I'd write about here. Naturally, there is an unwritten list of "taboo" topics that Japanese will avoid in social situations. Politics is one, and it's rare that a discussion about a person's affiliation with one political party or another will take place, though in the weeks before an election these rules are relaxed somewhat. The Japanese nearly never discuss a person's religion, considering it to be a violation of privacy, and the you generally have to know someone very well before you discover if there's a Christian or a member of such-and-such sect of Buddhism. (An exception might be members of Soka Gakkai, a modern group formerly affiliate with the Nichiren Buddhist School that can be considered an "evangelical" Buddhist religion, always eager to recruit new members.) Asking whether a person is of mixed ethnicity is also rarely done, unless the person is obviously haafu (half-Japanese, half-Western, like my kids). While commenting on a person's weight gain is a pretty major taboo in the U.S., the Japanese don't share this view, and will often make good-natured but indelicate statements about my weight when I see them.

It's rare for politics or religeon to be openly discussed in Japan.

The Japanese People and the English Language

The relationship between Japan and the English language is a long and complex one. Everyone studies the language for six years in junior high and high school, or up to ten if they take the language in university, but not everyone has the same level of real mastery. Some Japanese -- doctors, lawyers or politicians -- will often show off their higher education by peppering their speech with more English phrases, in the same way English speakers might throw in a French phrase here and there to spice things up, but these terms are far from universally understood. In the popular anime Sword Art Online, an (awesome) show about a virtual online fantasy game in which players become trapped in the game world, forced to play or die. In one scene, Asuna tells Kirito, "When to players get married inside the game, their inventory space is joined. It's a very platonic idea, but also romantic, too." Kirito has no idea what the word "platonic" means, so she has to explain it to him. This happens to my wife: after years of being married to me, her Japanese is filled with so many English words that others sometimes can't understand her easily.

There's a lot to like about Sword Art Online.

Traditional Stuff from Japan

J-List loves all aspects of Japan, from anime to manga to the traditional imagery of Kyoto, and we carry a lot of fun traditional products for you. We've got a lot of interesting Japanese footwear, to wooden geta sandals and the popular waraji woven grass sandals worn by samurai in the Edo Period, and even authentic tabi, the split-toed boots worn by ninjas, carpenters, and Mythbusters' Adam Savage when he wears his famous No Face costume. We also stock authentic kimonos, yukatas plus my favorite jinbei kimonos, great for summer festivals or using as pajamas. Click to see all our traditional clothing and footwear from Japan.

Gaishi-kei: Foreign Companies in Japan

One interesting word of Japanese is gaishi-kei, a word that means "foreign capital company" and which describes firms from America and Europe doing business in Japan, like Coca-Cola, P&G, Nestle, Michelin, Apple and AFLAC. Since these companies come from outside Japan, they represent a way of doing business that's uniquely un-Japanese, which often leads to interesting results in the marketplace, as the unifying Japanese concept of joshiki (lit. "common sense") don't apply to them. Gaishi-kei companies also offer opportunities to Japanese employees that are likely not available at their more straight-laced domestic counterparts, and Japanese who have an aptitude for foreign languages, who are good at thinking "out of the box" and/or who have the ambition to do interesting things with their careers are often attracted to these unique companies. When my wife and I went to Tokyo a couple weeks ago, we decided to stay in the Park Hyatt, the foreign-operated hotel featured in the film Lost in Translation. I was impressed with the hotel on several levels, including the level of service they provided and the linguistic ability of their staff. The hotel gets a large number of guests who are foreigners, and knowing that we generally love everything about Japan, they'd decorated the hotel with fascinating books on Japanese history, art and culture that we were free to pick up and read at any time. I was very impressed, and wanted to read everything. I don't think a Japanese-run hotel would have thought of doing something like that.

Foreign companies in Japan are interesting.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Song of Ice, Fire and Nihongo

When learning Japanese, there are various yardsticks students will use to measure their progress. Are you able to converse normally with Japanese on everyday subjects? Can you "think" in Japanese without translating things to your native language first? Can you describe to the pizza delivery man how to get to your house without him realizing you're a foreigner? (That's not easy, trust me.) It's common for Japanese people to compliment gaijin on their Japanese ability, but serious students know that the real goal is to get to the point where they don't tell you nihongo ga jozu ("your Japanese is very good") but just shut and talk to you normally. The official measure of fluency is, of course, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, the 5-level test that helps you increase your language skill year-by-year, with the highest level (N1) being required for entering a Japanese university. I recently discovered a level that's even higher than that, when I was watching the Game of Thrones series with my wife and she asked me to explain all the relationships in the series to her in Japanese...Baratheon, Lannister, Stark and Targaryen. I was ready to die just then.

Want a challenge? Try explaining Game of Thrones to someone in Japanese.

Coincidences and Japan

Today's interesting word of Japanese is guuzen (goo-zen), which means "coincidence." I don't know why, but there seems to be something about Japan that brings out the most unlikely coincidences, at least for me. On several occasions I've bumped into people I studied Japanese with at SDSU in Tokyo and Yokohama -- quite a feat, considering that I live far from these places myself. Before coming to Japan, I taught myself the language using the classic baseball manga Touch, and by an incredible coincidence the city I came to live in (Isesaki, Gunma) just happens to be the birthplace of the artist, Adachi Mitsuru...who also shares a birthday with my wife. Yulia Nova is a beautiful Russian model, and the photographer who publishes her works just happens to be in the same city as J-List, about 3 km away, again totally by chance. Yesterday I learned that the company that makes those incredibly cute cat "phone jack mascot" iPhone figures our customers love just happens to be based in our city...and actually within walking distance from J-List. So instead of being made in China, they're made in our little corner of Japan, something we thought was pretty cool.

The company that makes these is very near J-List, despite us living in a small rural city.

Cat Cafes

Speaking of cats, I've written before about how much the Japanese love them, regularly turning the furry felines into "Internet pet idols" and traveling for miles to visit famous cats like Tama the Stationmaster or the residents of the Cat Temple in Fukui Prefecture. If you really love cats, why not come to Japan and go to a "cat cafe"? It's a variation on the basic Internet cafe model where patrons with too much time on their hands pay a fee to relax in a pleasant space where they can drink coffee, access computers and read manga, but these establishments add lots of adorable cats to the mix. Visitors spend hours playing with the cats, which is a soothing experience the Japanese call "neko therapy." It's quite a popular concept, and there are almost 150 of these cat cafes in Japan now, with names like Neko Cafe Calm, Cat's Time and (my favorite) Curl Up Cafe.

Tthe Japanese really love cats. You have no idea.

Super Awesome Thing: Aselia the Eternal

J-List is heavily involved with licensing and translating Japanese visual novels, eroge and other rare and fun games from Japan for our customers all over the world. One game we love a lot is the Aselia the Eternal, a popular all-ages RPG with a fun gameplay system that features maps, real combat, and 40-50 hours of total gameplay to enjoy. For more information on this outstanding title, visit the Aselia the Eternal Official Site or click here to see the game's product page.

Monday, August 20, 2012

How the Japanese View America

One of the interesting aspects of Japan is that it's one of the most pro-American countries on the planet, with most people having a positive view of the U.S., occasional issues over the bases on Okinawa notwithstanding. Compared with Japan's more restrictive society, Japanese often view America as more "free," and learning English and immigrating to the U.S. is a popular option for Japanese who don't fit in with society here for one reason or another. (My wife has a Japanese friend who always says whatever she's thinking no matter who will be put off by it, because "that's what Americans do"...I could see why she'd have problems living in Japan.) Japanese are usually favorable to American brands, viewing them as kakko ii -- meaning "good style" or "cool" -- which allows companies like Jack Daniels and Harley-Davidson and Costco to win many loyal customers here. There's a booming business for American companies that license their names for use on unrelated products, and if you're looking for a bicycle in Japan, you can find one bearing the Chevrolet or Ford Mustang or Coleman logos. I bought a Zippo bicycle for the lulz, because I like the company but don't smoke.

Black Rock Harley-Riding Shooter.

Lightning Strikes in Japan

All things considered, Japan is a pretty safe country to live in, generally free from a lot of things that can kill you. The number of murders in Japan each year is slightly more than that of New York State, deaths from traffic accidents are low, and generally Japan is very heiwa (peaceful). There are some dangers of course -- as we all learned a year ago, earthquakes and tsunamis can take a terrible toll if you're caught in the wrong place without a clear evacuation plan. Then there's lightning, so frequent on hot, sticky summer afternoons, which proved tragically fatal over the weekend. Two 22-year-old females were attending an outdoor concert in Osaka when the light drizzle turned into a sudden "guerrilla thunderstorm" (gerira raiu, a very colorful Japanese term). The two women moved closer to a tree to try to get out of the rain when lightning suddenly struck the tree, killing both of them. In a separate incident, a 15 year old boy in Shiga Prefecture near Kyoto was struck by lightning while jogging, and is in critical condition.

A sad lightning strike at a concert in Osaka.

Increased Competition for "Randoseru" Backpacks in Japan

One of the proudest days in the lives of parents is going shopping with their child to buy a school backpack, which will be used during elementary school to carry textbooks and study supplies as well as the hopes and dreams of mom and dad. Called randoseru (from the Dutch word ransel, meaning backpack), these school backpacks have been a symbol of growing up going back to the Meiji Period. Because the backpacks need to last all six years of elementary school, they're extremely well-made and can be quite expensive, and it's common for grandparents to step up and buy them as a gift for their beloved grandchild who's about to start school. One of the biggest problems facing Japan today is shoshika, the declining number of children brought about by Japan's low birthrate, and this has caused Japan's school backpack industry to heat up with increased competition as companies chase fewer children. The Japanese school year doesn't start until next April, but already manufacturers are advertising heavily and slashing prices to make sales. If you're interested in these randoseru Japanese backpacks for that Mayoi Hachikuji cosplay you've been planning, we've got one on the site now.

A Japanese randoseru school backpack symbolizes growing up.

Shimapan and Absolute Zone Socks at J-List

J-List carries a lot of random cosplay products from Japan for you. First are our wonderful selection of shimapan, the striped panties that have become such a popular meme in anime, which we have in several colors. We also love the over-knee socks known that create an awesome space between the top of the socks and where a girl's skirt begins, which is known as zettai ryoiki, or the Absolute Zone. Of course, socks that fall down would be terrible, so we stock Japanese Socks Glue, too. Click to see our awesome selection of Japanese fashion items and cosplay products now!