Friday, September 07, 2012

The Japanese Love Lists

Quick, do you know how many Great Lakes there are on North America? The answer is five. The reason I know this is, the official name of the Great Lakes in Japanese is "Go-daiko" or the Five Great Lakes. The Japanese can be really organized at times, and they like to codify things into little lists to make them easier to manage, not unlike the classic Seven Wonders of the World ranking. Have you read the Four Great Tragedies of Shakespeare? I didn't know there were only four of them, but this is the term the Japanese use to describe Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear. These "most famous" mini lists are positively legion in Japan, and no matter what subject you're interested in, there's probably a "best whatever" list for you. If you're planning a trip to Japan, you might want to hit the Nihon Sankei, the Three Most Beautiful Views of Japan, which are the gnarled Japan Pines of Matsushima, the floating arch at Miyajima near Hiroshima and the view from the top of Amano Hashidate Mountain in Kyoto (which, by tradition, you're supposed to look at upside down, looking between your own legs). How about the Three Rare Delicacies of the World? Caviar, foie gras and truffles. The Three Great Soups? Bouillabaisse, Shark's Fin and Tom Yan Kung. How about the Three Great Guitarists of the world? Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. There is even an official listing for the Three Great Brands of Ham in the world.

This is really how you're supposed to do it.

Mistaken Perceptions of Other Countries

It's funny how wrong perceptions of other countries and languages can sometimes be, like the time I was asked if I could translate Vietnamese, with the idea being that since Japan and Vietnam are both in Asia, maybe the languages were similar. (They're not.) Then there are people who think Spanish is spoken in Brazil (it's Portuguese) or who say things like, "You're Taiwanese? Do you still have family in Thailand?" While there'll always be some confusion when dealing with other places -- who among us hasn't confused the Hindi and Urdu alphabet from time to time? -- it's important to interact with others with an open mind and fix these mistakes. The Japanese have their share of erroneous perceptions too. I once met a lady who asked me if we had McDonald's in the U.S., and I taught English to a 6-year-old boy who believed that ninjas originated in the U.S. for some reason. (I was also asked in all seriousness if, because I have blue eyes, I perceived the world with a blue tint.) In the K-On! Movie, the girls of the Light Music Club plan a trip to the U.K., and I love the scene where Yui says, "No silly, we're not going to England. We're going to London."

Mistaken perceptions of other countries are all too easy.

Diplomatic Crisis in Asia

Tensions are running high in Asia these days over territorial issues which are starting to affect politics and economics in the region. The Japanese government recently sent inspectors to survey the Senkaku Islands, done in preparation for the government to buy them from their current private owners so they can be controlled by Japan directly. The Senkakus are uninhabited islands that were claimed by Japan as terra nullius in 1895 and developed in the first half of the century (Japan had a fish processing factory there from 1900-1940), and were administered by the U.S. along with Okinawa after the war then formally returned to Japan in 1972. The islands have been claimed by China and Taiwan since 1970, after it was discovered that the region held oil and natural gas reserves, and every couple years China is wracked by demonstrations resulting in rocks being thrown through the windows of Japanese businesses. Then there's Dokdo / Takeshima, two ugly islands claimed by both Japan and South Korea which were unilaterally occupied by South Korea in 1952 (in violation, it must be said, of U.S. postwar policy and the Treaty of San Francisco). The average Japanese hadn't spared two seconds to think about the islands before, using the Japanese mantra shikata ga nai ("it can't be helped"), but when President Lee visited the islands and made disparaging comments about Japan's Emperor, people here got extremely angry, no doubt switching from kimchee imported from Korea to domestic brands. The real problem is that there are two disputes. I believe Japan could reach an agreement with South Korea, but this would weaken it's position in the more important Senkaku issue...hence nothing can move forward.

A crisis over useless islands in the Pacific.

2013 Anime Calendar Season Begins!

We've got great news today: the real start of 2013 calendar season. We've updated the J-List site with dozens of gorgeous 2013 calendars, with all the most popular series represented, from Sword Art Online to Fate/Zero to Super Sonico and My Neighbor Totoro. This year is extra special because there are offerings by Japan's top artists, including Tony Taka, Twinkle and our favorite, Kantoku. Browse all 2013 Japanese calendars now, and get your preorders in early!

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

How the Japanese Language Works with Computers

Back in the early days of my interest in Japan, I used to wonder how computers and word processors might work in the language, with its convoluted system of hiragana, katakana and kanji -- I'd imagine keyboards with hundreds of keys on them to make input possible. The reality is much simpler: modern computer OSes use a front-end program (IME in Windows, Kotoeri on Mac) to take text you've entered using the normal keyboard layout and convert it to the proper kanji or kana characters for you when you hit the space bar. There are certain fundamental issues that come up when using Japanese with a computer. First, there's the danger of henkan-miss or mistakenly entered kanji characters, like a news report on Japanese "living abroad starting this year" that displayed "shellfish living in your stomach starting this year" on the screen by accident. Then there's the problem of mojibake (mo-ji-bah-kay), literally "characters turning into monsters on your screen," which can happen if your web browser can't figure out the correct character conversion to use for displaying text. Finally, since Japanese net users are the laziest in the world, a class of English slang words typed with Japanese input mode active has been born, like yoh-tsubeh for YouTube or sloppy versions of "ok" and "up" (upload). If you ever see Japanese net users using the letter "w" in strange ways, it represents laughter.

Thursday is Imouto no Hi (Younger Sister's Day)

The Japanese are fond of designating certain days to commemorate random things, and every time I get in my car it greets me and tells me that today is Mandarin Orange Day or something like that. Often these special days are decided by Japanese phonetics -- for example, the number four can be pronounced yo, so it's somewhat logical that April 4 be declared "Yo-yo Day." It turns out that September 6 is Imouto no Hi, or Younger Sister's Day, first established by manga-ka (manga artist) Kunio Hatada. It's a day to do something special for your younger sister, if you have one, and reflect on the nice things she does for you, like cooking you omelet-rice with a ketchup heart drawn on top, or waking you up every morning before running off to school with a piece of toast in her mouth. The genre of imouto chara -- younger sister, or characters in similar roles -- have become a major meme in anime these days, and a vehicle for moe stories like I Can't Believe My Younger Sister Is This Cute and and My Little Sister is Among Them! In case you were wondering, younger brother's day, older brother's day and older sister's day also exist, on March 6, June 6 and December 6, respectively.

Thursday is Imouto no Hi, a day to celebrate younger sisters. Is that creepy?

Otaku Tourism Update

J-List is based in Gunma, a landlocked prefecture in the exact center of Japan that's said to be shaped like a crane in flight, which is a pretty Japanese observation to make. It's a land of mountains -- Gunma is the setting for the Initial D mountain racing anime -- plus there are many onsen hot springs, which is fine by me. While we like our prefecture a lot, we're not always happy with our city of Isesaki for various reasons. These days there's a boom in anime series being set in real locations, in part to add a realistic flavor to a two-dimensional world but also to help promote interest in rural parts of Japan. The Komoro and Lake Kizaki regions of Nagano Prefecture are featured in the anime Please, Ichika! Ano Natsu de Matteru, and these areas have worked closely with the animation studios to help promote ota-tourism, bringing in fans who want to visit the locations in the anime and buy limited products you can only find there. Similarly, if you take a trip to Hokkaido you'll be able to find lots of limited edition Hatsune Miku products, which has become part of the character of Sapporo. But despite the fact that Isesaki is the setting for the Nichijou anime, our city totally failed to realize the benefit of promoting this fact to the outside world. When I think of the limited edition Nichijou Roll Cake we could have used to bring in tourist dollars, featuring Nano and Hakase and Sakamoto on the package, it brings a tear to my eye.

Our city failed to bring in Nichijou tourism.

Japanese Pen, Notebook and Study Product Sale!

September is time for studying, and J-List is happy to announce a great new sale for everyone. For the next month, get 2x J-List Points on all awesome Japanese pens, erasers, and other stationery and art supplies. Since everyone who'll be taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test this December needs to get studying, we're also including all Japanese study products in the sale. See all items included in the sale now!

Monday, September 03, 2012

Healthy Japanese

Like many people, the Japanese are very health conscious, and it seems every time I watch daytime variety shows on TV, some new health boom is being discussed. One week it might be green tea with fat-busting elements called catechin, then a story on the benefits of eating onions to make your blood sara sara (smooth-flowing) instead of doro doro (thick and syrupy), or promoting the benefits of a glass of kurozu (a black rice vinegar, diluted with water) after dinner, which supposedly changes an acidic body into an alkaline one, or something. Something must be working, because the Japanese are among the longest-lived people in the world, although the terrible loss of life from last year's tsunamis caused Japan to drop behind Hong King for women for the first time in 26 years. I happened to see that last Friday was the 100th birthday of Katsumi Tezuka, the actor who was inside the rubber Godzilla suit for the first few films in the series. I shall raise a glass of black rice vinegar to him tonight!

The guy in the Godzilla suit has turned 100 years old.

Comparing Spain and Japan

The other day I caught an in-depth Japanese news show on the economic crisis in Spain, which was interesting because the problems that country is experiencing are very similar to what Japan went through after the bursting of its land bubble in 1991. During the Japan's bubble period, the value of all land in Tokyo was higher than the entire United States on paper, and when things crashed in 1991, it resulted in a "lost decade" of economic hard times for Japan. The causes of both crashes were remarkably similar, including over-spending on municipal "if you build it they will come" projects, too much access to easy credit and a speculative bubble in land prices. One silver lining is that countries like Spain can learn a lot from the steps Japan took to solve its own economic problems and act on them sooner (Japan's government took years to start to combat the crisis). As is common with Japanese news programs like the one I was watching, a male "announcer" (newscaster) stood beside an attractive female co-announcer, while a panel of distinguished guests looked on, ready to make comments. Naturally they needed a Japanese-bilingual foreigner to round out the group and give a foreign point of view, a role filled by model and "talent" Jessica Claros from Malaga, Spain.

Japan is uniquely qualified to understand Spain's crisis.

Space Battleship Yamato Returns

It's a glorious time for me as an anime fan, thanks to the new Space Battleship Yamato series that started running this season. It's a proper remake of the 1974 classic space opera, telling the story of the Earth in the year 2199, under attack by radioactive "planet bombs" sent by the evil Lord Desslar of Planet Gamilas. All life on earth will cease unless the Yamato (the World War II battleship, refitted with alien technology to be a spaceship) can travel 148,000 light years to the planet Iscandar and bring back a device that can remove radiation with one year. The story is heavily influenced by Japan's experiences in World War II, of course, and the original series really marked the first time the subject of the war could play a part in popular culture in any way. While the new series is remarkably faithful to the original, creators Yutaka Izubuchi (Gundam ZZ, Loddoss War, Patlabor) and Hideki Anno (Evangelion, Gunbuster, Macross) are tweaking the story elements -- for example, the crew sometimes wears Gundam-style pressure suits, and the Gamilas have a proper alien language, for added realism. The original series was a bit of a sausage fest, so new female characters have been added, such as a bridge crew member, a fighter pilot and an assistant to Dr. Sado, who still drinks Captain Avatar's spring water, er, I mean sake all the time. The new characters have modern moe design features like glasses and ahoge (that strand of hair that sticks up on some characters to serve as a "charm point") in order to modernize the series.

The Space Battleship Yamato remake is great!

2013 Japanese Calendars Posted

Regular J-List customers know that near the end of the year we offer hundreds of gorgeous calendars for fans of anime, manga, traditional Japanese art and more. While the bulk of anime calendars aren't released for preorder yet, we've been posting the new calendars to the site as they are announced. We've already got a great lineup of epic calendars for you to browse, from Totoro and Jiji the Cat to Yotsubato and Hetalia and this year's Japanese Women in Kimono calendar. Click to browse all 2013 Japanese calendars now!
(Are we really posting calendars for 2013? When we started J-List it was 1996 and we were posting 1997 calendars. Wow...)