Friday, September 14, 2012

Non-English Foreign Words Used in Japan

One of the first things you learn as a foreigner in Japan is that people here will assume you're intimately familiar with every word written in katakana, the writing system used for expressing foreign words, just by being a native speaker of English. Although the majority of foreign-loan words do come from English, many are taken from other languages, like arubaito (part time job, from the German arbeit) and ankeeto (questionnaire, from the French enquete) and the blocks of concentrated curry powder called roux (also French). This assumption that every Western foreigner knows everything associated with America and Europe goes beyond words, too. I was asked by the PTA of the special English school my son used to attend if I thought the International Baccalaureate program would be a good base for students wishing to attend university in the U.S., but I'd never heard of this system as it's generally found in Europe, which scandalized them. What kind of foreigner was I? Then there was the time I was teaching English to a student, and she informed me that she was a "Soroptimist," a word I was totally unfamiliar with at the time. (I now know it's an international volunteer organization for women and girls in 125 countries.)

The German word arubaito describes any part-time employment.

Ritualized Suicide in Japan

Japan is a very different place from the West for several reasons. It's an island nation with a strong culture that was never colonized by outside forces, the only other country in the region besides Thailand able to achieve this, and the 220 year period when the country was completely closed off from the outside world (the Sakoku or "Chained Country" Period) helped its culture grow like plants in a greenhouse. One unique aspect of Japan has always been its somewhat romantic views on suicide, like shinju (ritualized lovers' suicide) or the ceremony of seppuku (aka harakiri), the ritual self-disembowelment that was an important part of Japan's strict code of Bushido. The most famous example of this in Japanese history is the story of the 47 Ronin, when 47 masterless samurai plotted for two years to kill the lord who had been responsible for the death of their master. Their plan finally succeeded, after which time they turned themselves into the shogunate for punishment, and were ordered to commit seppuku themselves. Their bones and ashes are interred at Senkakuji Temple in Tokyo, and are quite a tourist attraction.

The grave of the 47 Ronin at Senkakuji Temple, the most famous suppuku story in Japanese history.

Learning About Japanese Politeness, And Pizza

I often write about how Japanese people are the most polite in the world, which can be understood pretty well using three Japanese terms. First is the "golden rule" that you should never cause meiwaku (inconvenience, annoyance) to others, followed by the idea of enryo ("social hesitation," which I discussed last time), which is why Japanese people will usually not eat the last piece of pizza, insisting that they're full and that someone else should eat it. Finally there's gaman, meaning to stoically endure an unpleasant situation rather than confront it openly, which the Japanese consider to be a positive personality trait. Not everyone subscribes to the idea that unpleasantness should be silently tolerated, for example my Japanese wife. The other day I was having lunch with her, when we noticed that the air conditioning in the restaurant we were in was too cold. While everyone around us shivered but said nothing, she charged off to find a member of the restaurant staff -- but finding no one, she located the air conditioning controller and changed the setting herself.

Pizza and politeness go together in Japan.

Even More 2013 Calendars @ J-List

The weekend is finally here, and we've got a huge number of quality anime and manga-related products, plus...even more 2013 calendars posted for preorder. The new calendars are great, with new anime releases (IdolMaster, Pretty Cute), incredibly cute Japanese idols and actresses (Ai Shinozaki, Aya Ueto), calendars that let you see Japan in new ways (I love this year's Japanese Tea Garden calendar), and more. Click here to browse all the currently available 2013 calendars from Japan!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Understanding the Japanese Through Potato Chips

The Japanese, as I've often written, are a group-oriented people, and it's interesting to observe the subtle body language that goes back and forth when people get together. If you have a bag of potato chips that you want to offer to friends, the correct way to do it is to open it "party-biraki" style, placing the bag with the seal facing upwards then ripping the entire bag open so that the contents sit on the opened wrapping. This makes it convenient for everyone to grab some chips, but it also helps your guests knock down social barriers that keep them from relaxing and having fun. The Japanese have a tendency to avoid taking something that's offered to them due to enryo, translatable as restraint, reserve, or as a verb, to refrain from doing something, and it can be difficult to get people at a party to lighten up at first. By opening the bag so that the contents will go to waste if your guests don't eat, you give them an excuse to dig in.

Some people don't need help eating potato chips.

Understand Kanji Through "Moe" Anime

One thing about the Japanese written language is that there's a strange "duality" present, with many words having two valid ways to read them, which usually results in us poor gaijin embarrassing ourselves by using the wrong one. One reason for this is that kanji usually have two pronunciations, a Chinese reading (imported from China two thousand years ago) and a Japanese one. Fundamentally, the Japanese reading is used for simpler words written with single characters like 水 mizu (water), sora (sky), or 人 hito (person), while the Chinese reading is used for more complex compound words like 水圧 suiatsu (water pressure), 空間 kuukan (a vacuum) and 人権 jinken (human rights). While this part is frankly not hard to master, the names of people are more complex, and family names like Miyagi or Yanai could be read as Miyashiro or Yauchi just as well -- the only way to know for sure is ask the person how their name is pronounced. I'm watching the currently-running anime Love, Elections and Chocolate, about love, elections and chocolate, and it features a main character named Ojima who's angry because everyone thinks his last name is Oshima, a perfectly valid alternate way to read the name.

Love, Elections, Chocolate and kanji.

My Time Travel Story

Yesterday I went with Ai, the J-List employee who keeps our site well stocked with bento boxes, traditional products from Kyoto and fun Japanese pens, to a product exhibition in Takasaki, a commercial city near J-List. It's put on twice a year by Eiwa, one of the distributors J-List buys from, to highlight the new products manufacturers are bringing out. I like going to these events because it's fun to browse the tables and see what interesting stuff we want to carry on J-List, like cute character goods involving cats or a pen that unfolds to become a handy pair of scissors, but I also like going because I feel like I'm riding a time machine back into the early Heisei period (1989~), when things were much simpler for Japan. The products on display at the exhibition are very "analog" and mostly untouched by the many changes brought about by the Internet, and they're distributed in a centralized Japanese model that's been in place for a century or more. None of the manufacturers creating the products sold by Eiwa are involved in social media like Facebook or Twitter, and it's fun to wander through the booths pretending I've "timeslipped" into the past. The best thing about the visiting the trade show is, they give us gifts as we leave, including delicious dorayaki (essentially a round "castella" cake with sweet anko beans inside) to bring back to the J-List staff.

I went browsing for Japanese pens for J-List and traveled through time.

Even More 2013 Calendars @ J-List

We're fully into 2013 calendar season right now, and guess what? We've got another huge volley of gorgeous calendars that you're sure to want on your wall all year long. We've got everything from the new Index calendar to Tiger & Bunny and Hatsune Miku, plus a Sword Art Online desktop calendar, plus fun characters and more. Click here to see all the new 2013 Japanese calendars you can preorder from Japan!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Emotional and Tragic Anime Series

One thing I love about anime is its ability to affect viewers emotionally, often with characters so tragic they're almost Shakespearean. In Madoka Magika, the dark and "grown up" magical girl anime, we can sense that forces closing in on poor Miki Sayaka which result in her eventual downfall, and in the AnoHana anime (aka "We Still Don't Know the Name of the Flower We Saw on That Day") the character of Menma is very moving indeed. One series I like a lot is She, The Ultimate Weapon (Saikano), about a girl who's asked to use her esper powers to defend Japan in a great war...but she keeps growing more and more powerful, until she's able to crack the Earth in two, though all she wants to do is be with her boyfriend Shuuji. If you like your anime happy and cheerful, be wary of Sword Art Online, which has some amazing (and sad) plot twists, as does the outstanding Steins;Gate, which features some very emotional scenes as Okabe timeslips again and again in an effort to save his childhood friend Mayuri, fated to die no matter what he does. The list of highly emotional anime series goes on -- I could add Clannad After Story and Air, but I'd need to get out a tissue box. So, who are your favorite tragic anime characters?

One of the most emotional series I've seen is Air, the story of... *sob*

20 Years of Changes in Japan

I write a lot about the ways Japan has changed in the two decades I've lived here. When I first arrived back in 1991, the country was still a very closed place, with very few new products and ideas entering from the outside world, and very few choices for Japanese consumers. Happily, the long post-bubble recession coupled with the arrival of the Internet would bring some welcome changes for the country. Back in the day, the only source of English news of any kind of the Far East Network, the AM radio station broadcast by the U.S. armed forces, but now thanks to the Internet and smartphone revolution I can work out at the gym while streaming BBC news programs or even local San Diego radio news, which would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. The retail world has changed, too, with the arrival of large, efficient chains from overseas, like Toys R Us, and Starbucks. These companies have had a disruptive effect inside Japan, to be sure -- a large toy distributor J-List used to buy from went bankrupt when Toys R Us arrived in the marketplace -- but the end result has been positive for Japanese consumers. Costco has been an especially welcome addition to life in Japan, allowing us to buy hard-to-find foods like American hot dogs, which my wife insists are a great food to serve for breakfast for some reason. The main downside of having Costco in Japan is is that it's harder to buy omiyage (souvenirs) for the J-List staff when returning from the States -- we can't just get whatever looks good from the San Diego Costco, but actually have to look hard for interesting gifts instead.

Japan has certainly changed a lot in the past 20 years.

The Japanese [heart] Curry Rice

Japanese food has become famous all over the world, and most people are familiar with sushi, sashimi, tempura, soba, udon, sukiyaki, etc. When I arrived in Japan, I was pretty surprised that the food the Japanese seem to love best of all isn't Japanese at's curry rice. Originally from India, Japan's version of curry is based on a thicker beef-based variety that was introduced into the country by the British during the Meiji Period. These days curry is made from concentrated blocks of curry powder called "roux" (a French word that Japanese people always expect Americans to know), and the market for these pre-made curry blocks is huge, worth 82 billion yen (US$1 billion) annually. There are some interesting variations on traditional curry, including katsu-curry or curry with a fried pork cutlet on top, curry udon (a delicacy of Nagoya), curry pan (bread with curry baked inside) plus yaki curry, curry rice baked to create a delicious "doria" dish. When I first met my wife's mother, she made delicious curry rice for me, and I know that the daughter of such a woman would surely be worth marrying. If you want to try making some Japanese-style curry yourself, J-List can help.

The most popular food in Japan is "curry rice."

More 2013 Anime Calendars Posted

2013 calendar season is in full swing, and we've been posting dozens of gorgeous 2013 anime, photo, idol, JPOP and "men's" (JAV) calendars for you to browse and preorder, from Evangelion to Oreimo to the gorgeous calendars for fans of Tony Taka and Kantoku and more. Remember that all preorders are held without charging until the actual calendars come in, starting in October, and you can always add to your order or change items before the items are ready to ship. Click here to see all new 2013 Japanese calendars posted to J-List!