Friday, August 31, 2012

Bowing Level: Japanese

Bowing is an important form of social communication in Japan. Whether it's a short sumimasen accompanied by a brief lowering of the head at someone for bringing you a cup of coffee (which essentially means "sorry for inconveniencing you"), or a gomen nasai said with a deeper bow for communicating a more serious apology, Japan's culture of bowing is interesting to observe. Japanese people bow to each other while talking on the phone or to thank other drivers for letting them go ahead of them in traffic, and naturally foreigners pick up on this, too, though it can be embarrassing. The ultimate form of a bowing is dogeza, known in English as kowtow or in Internet visual parlance, orz, which is when a person places their body on the lowest level possible, literally touching their head to the ground. This is done to ask for forgiveness for a serious breach or to make a very important request of someone. When my Japanese wife's mother met my mother for the first time, she did this, prostrating herself on the floor in a gesture that meant, "I humbly ask you to look after our daughter from now on," which freaked my mother out more than a little. Today we have some interesting Japanese plush toys featuring Japanese salrymen making this deeply Japanese gesture.

An example of dogeza ("Please, give us a role in the series, too!")

Hatsune Miku 5th Anniversary

Today is the "birthday" of Hatsune Miku, the popular Vocaloid singer that has come to represent Japan in the eyes of the world in the same way that Astro Boy and Akira did in previous eras. Miku-chan is a character designed by Crypton Future Media in Sapporo, Hokkaido to promote the Vocaloid voice synthesis software developed by Yamaha, and when the software was released five years ago today it was an instant hit in part thanks to her. While the virtual idol herself was created by popular Japanese artist Kei, Hatsune Miku was warmly embraced by Japan's fan artists, who create breathtakingly beautiful original images which I like to seek out and post to J-List's Facebook and Twitter feeds. Miku has passed through several phases over the years, including her "leek period" (a crossover meme from Bleach) that featured her singing the Finnish folk song "levan Polkka" and the oh-so-gorgeous "Love is War" period, and she's always evolving for us. Recently birthdays of popular anime and other characters have become quite a big event for online otaku culture, with fans baking cakes and planning romantic candlelight dinners with their favorite waifus characters, and I'm sure Japan's 2ch BBS will be inundated with creepygusta images of private birthday celebrations with Miku tomorrow. If you love Miku-chan as we do, J-List has some great Hatsune Miku products to show you, including the just-released PS Vita Hatsune Miku game that has a great "augmented reality" feature that lets Miku dance on your desk (wow).

Happy 5th birthday to Hatsune Miku!

First Impressions of Japan, and the U.S.

It's interesting to look at first impressions of a new country. When I came to Japan in 1991, I was surprised to see vending machines everywhere, and I couldn't stop thinking the yellow "in" signs placed in front of Japanese restaurants were In-n-Out signs, beckoning me to come in and have a Double Double. (In-n-Out is the best hamburger chain in the American Southwest, trust me.) Going into restaurants and having the employees shout Irasshaimase! ("Welcome to our shop!") took some getting used to, as did using coins for the equivalent of $1 and $5 bills (I prefer them now though). Going the other way, Japanese people are surprised by various aspects of life in the U.S. when they go there, starting with the sizes of everything from American roads to houses to "medium" Cokes that are three times a large as they need to be. If they go to a part of the U.S. other than Southern California, they're amazed to see that there are four distinct seasons, which they usually believe is a unique feature of Japan. They're also surprised at the amazing number of breakfast cereals available in our supermarkets. One of my ESL students once wrote, "In SAFEWAY, many kinds of corn flakes about one hundred have overpowered me. I felt a difference of the staple foods." Japanese stores usually have about 8-10 varieties including Kellogg's "Corn Frosty" or "Genmai Flake."

Japanese are surprised at the selection of cereal in the U.S.

Fun Anime & Kanji T-Shirts @ J-List

For years J-List has been making fun anime and kanji T-shirts, and we've got some great designs for you, from our Haruhi "No Normal Humans" design to our K-On! x Beatles tribute shirt and fun shirts for fans of tsundere or yandere anime characters. We also have hoodies, great for the coming cooler months. Click here to browse our most popular Japanese T-shirt designs!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Japan, Taxes and Pensions

After several years of intense negotiations, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan was able to push through a bill that will raise the Japanese consumption tax from its current level of 5% to 8% in 2014, with a further increase to 10% a couple of years later. While I'm no fan of paying more taxes, I believe that something needs to be done to improve Japan's financial situation, already in bad straights and now needing to pay for the recovery of Tohoku after last year's earthquakes and tsunamis. The other day I caught an interesting show in which Japanese director Beat Takeshi lead a round-table discussion featuring politicians, writers and other smart people as they debated the financial issues Japan faced going forward, including the crisis of people not making their National Pension payments. Japan has two pension systems, "Social Insurance" (shakai hoken) for employees at larger companies, and National Pension (kokumin nenkin) for workers at smaller companies and self-employed. In one of the biggest blunders by a modern government ever, employees covered under the National Pension system are "required" to make their pension payments...but since the money is not deducted by employers like Social Security is in the U.S. and there's no actual enforcement for non-payment, a full 41% of Japanese who should be making their pension payments are not. This is a crisis not only for the individuals in question but also for Japan at large. I hope they can come up with some good solutions.

Japan is trying to fix its National Pension system with attractive graphics like this.

Japan and the Disabled

Today is the start of the 2012 Summer Paralympics, where thousands of athletes will show off their athletic skills and try to win the gold. I'm often asked about how Japan fares when it comes to people with disabilities, so I thought I'd write about the 3.5 million people with physical handicaps in Japan (2.5% of the population). It's often said by Japanese that they are "behind" the U.S. and Europe socially, and the relatively high number of areas that aren't currently wheelchair-accessible in Japan are thought to reflect this...though as Japan is a nation that must cram half the population of the U.S. into a land area the size of Montana, it's sometimes considered shikata ga nai ("it can't be helped") that the country isn't as friendly to people with special needs as the U.S. Still, over the past decade things certainly have gotten more "barrier free" -- a made-in-Japan English term used to describe places free of obstacles for elderly or disabled people -- and these days most every train station I visit has elevators and accessible bathrooms. Japan does a lot for its disabled citizens, including assistance with education and employment and covering most of the costs for special vehicles and guide dogs for the blind. Near J-List there's a sports-and-rehabilitation facility that's free for people with disabilities (the rest of us pay $3 to use it). I used to teach English to wheelchair racing and basketball players there, and I hope that some of my former students are representing Japan in London!

Japanese athletes aim for gold at the Paralympics. Good luck!

In Stock Now: Necomimi Brain-Powered Cat Ears

We love to find fun cosplay products from Japan, and one of the most popular products we've ever carried has been the Necomimi Nuerowear cat ears, which work by picking up your brain waves, moving just like a cat's. The unit work great, sensing changes in your brain waves as well as circulation. At the summer's anime conventions we sold them, and whenever someone would approach the ecchi side of our booth we'd laugh as the ears shot straight up, just like a real cat. We recently restocked the U.S. version of the Necomimi Cat Ears, and today we got in the alternate cat ear coverings, which allow you customize your cat ears so they're special. So cute!

Switching Bodies in Kokoro Connect

One unique aspect of the Japanese language is the great difference between male and female speech, including gender-specific pronouns, e.g. the word for "I" is ore (oh-reh) for boys trying to appear more manly than they are, and atashi for feminine girls. It's a (minor) issue for foreigners studying the language, since it can be all too easy for a male to pick up the speech patterns of a girlfriend or female teacher, which can be embarrassing. The gap between female and male speech is explored in the new anime Kokoro Connect, about a school Cultural Research Club where the members inexplicably start to switch bodies, with male club members suddenly finding themselves in the bodies of female members and vice-versa. This leads to interesting scenes in which a female character speaks with the voice of the male character whose body she has switched with, using female inflection and pronouns despite the voice itself being male, as well as female characters using masculine speech when boys have swapped bodies with them. It's quite an interesting exploration of what makes us who we's also more than a little sexy.

The new body-switching anime Kokoro Connect.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Japanese Memory Tricks

Quick, what's the square root of five? I have no idea, but my wife knows: it's 2.2360679. How about the Periodic Table of Elements? My wife can recite the first dozen or so. Do you know what year the Kamakura Bakufu, the first military government in Japan, was established? She tells me that it was the year 1192. This isn't because she's especially smart -- like all Japanese she has a tendency to be self-effacing and regularly calls herself baka, or stupid. No, the reason she knows these tidbits of knowledge is because of the way Japanese memorize some forms of information, by converting it into easily learned phrases, which is called goro-awase. Through a mechanism few gaijin can really understand, numbers are easily mapped to syllables in Japanese, for example the ee sound can stand for ichi (one), and yo or shi for the number four, and o for zero. To conjure up the square root of five in the example above, my wife needs only to remember a phrase that translates as, "at the base of Mt. Fuji, a parrot cries" (Fuji-sanroku ni ohmu naku). Back in the late 1980s, the U.S. was going through a period of serious Japan envy, when just about everything from the country seemed to be perfect, especially the much-vaunted education system, and at least a small reason the Japanese were beating us on international standardized tests was because of these little mnemonic tricks. Of course, breaking information down into easy-to-digest chunks or memorizing by association are great ways to study more effectively. If you're looking for some innovative ways to learn Japanese, be sure to view our study pages for some good ideas.

It's easy to memorize information when you do it in Japanese.

Japan [Hearts] France

Perceptions are always fun to explore. The other day I made a lunch date with Mrs. J-List at a nice French restaurant we like to go to occasionally. The Japanese are big fans of French-style formal dining, and every Japanese city is well served by several French restaurants with price points ranging from expensive to very expensive. As we ate, I amused myself by wondering how different Japan's stylized image of French dining differed from what French people actually eat. Japan's fascination with all things French might trace back to the popularity of The Rose of Versailles, the anime and manga about the French Revolution from the 1970s. In addition to Tokyo Tower, a 1:1 scale homage to the Eiffel Tower, Tokyo is filled with boulangeries offering all manner of French-style baked goods, restaurants with trained sommeliers for recommending the perfect wine, and p√Ętissiers who have apprenticed under master pastry chefs in Paris. A famous symbol of Japan's love of France is their embracing of a thick brown sauce called demi-glace, which is as popular in Japan as teriyaki is in the U.S. But when I asked some of my Twitter followers in France about it, several had never heard of the sauce and needed to use Wikipedia to find out what it was.

The Japanese have a slightly idealized image of France.

Buying a New Car in Japan

Over the weekend we got a new car, a Mazda CX-5. It's a fun and sporty small SUV that seemed to suit our needs better now that the kids are getting old enough to not want to do "family stuff" with us that much. Buying a car in Japan is naturally a little different than in the U.S. First of all, rather than buying from a third-party dealer, you nearly always go to an official car dealership operated by Toyota, Nissan, Mazda etc. (This direct-from-manufacturer model was emulated by GM's Saturn brand.) You never drive off with a car that day, but instead order it and wait three weeks while they make it in the factory...or in our case, three months, since the model we got was backlogged due to its popularity. (Fun fact: Mazda cars are made in Hiroshima, Japan.) While having to wait for your new car can be a bummer, I've come to appreciate the slow taste of anticipation quite a lot. One reason people buy new cars in Japan is a tax-and-car-inspection called sha-ken, which is required every two years and which costs around $600-1500 (this fee includes a road tax and two years of required auto insurance). It's unpleasant to pay this fee, so many Japanese use it as an excuse to look at new cars when the two year date rolls around, which helps keep the domestic Japanese economy humming.

Artist's concept of a car showroom in Japan (not really).

Kawaii Nendoroid Figures at J-List!

We love finding kawaii anime figures to post to the site, and none are cuter than the Nendoroid series by Good Smile Company. Featuring incredibly "Super Deformed" versions of your favorite characters, Nendoroid figures come with many extra parts allowing you to create awesome new poses and complete dioramas with your other figures. Click here to see the most popular Nendoroid figures on the site!