Friday, September 21, 2012

Educational Variety TV in Japan

Japanese TV never fails to entertain, or to provide me with good neta, a word which means the fish part of a piece of sushi, though in this case it refers to ideas for these little updates that I write. One aspect of Japanese TV I've been generally impressed with us the large number of popular shows that manage to offer educational value. The other day I was watching "Time Shock!," a Japanese quiz show in which teams of actors, commedians and other television personalities took turns sitting in a special chair while they were asked ten questions on subjects like geography, English or history. If they failed to answer at least six questions right, the chair would spin them around and upside-down at a very fast rate, emitting noise and steam. On the surface it may seem like another crazy Japanese "game show" (not really an accurate term, since no prizes are awarded and the participants are all professional entertainers), but I like the show because the questions are fascinating, and quite useful to my high school-age kids. A lot of these educational TV variety shows started appearing 6-7 years ago when Japan's policy of yutori kyoiku (lit. "Take it Easy" Education) failed miserably, leaving Japan dead last in academic competitions with other countries in Asia. Considering the percent of American television that apparently seeks to rot the brains of viewers (*cough* American Idol *cough*), a fun show that actually teaches something is a breath of fresh air.

If players can't answer the questions, their chair spins then around and around!

Kawaii or Beautiful?

You probably know that the Japanese word for "cute" is kawaii, an adjective that's been in use since the Heian Period (794-1185) to describe endearing features in women, babies and cats, assuming they had cats in Japan back then. The Japanese certainly are fans of all things cute, from panda-themed coffee cups to surprisingly adorable Rilakkuma personal products, and have a tradition of employing kawaii models and idols to deliver important public notices, like fire awareness campaigns ("Did you extinguish all flames and turn of all heaters before sleeping? These are the words that can save your family.") It's interesting to observe that while kawaii-ness is in the eye of the beholder -- for example, many Japanese find crooked teeth charming while others don't, and there's a slang word busu-kawaii that means "homely, but in a cute way" -- the more refined concept of "beauty" (bi in Japanese, pronounced "bee") is more universally defined. For a man or woman to achieve true beauty, the Japanese say, they must be tall, with a body "eight heads high" (that is, their head should take up 1/8th of their total frame). They should have a "high nose" (not flat like most Japanese), and larger eyes with two creases in the eyelid (futae), not the narrow single-creased eyes of most Japanese (hitoe).

Former Morning Musume member Erina Mano reminds you to turn off all flames before bed.

Autumn in Japan 2012

Saturday marks the official start of autumn, which is a holiday in Japan, though it'll be observed two days later as part of the "Happy Monday" holiday initiative by the Japanese government (yes, it's really called that). Autumn is hands-down my favorite time of year here, thanks to the pleasant weather that makes going for a drive up Mt. Haruna so nice. Just as sakura (cherry blossoms) are the symbol of springtime, the beautiful leaves of the momiji (Japanese maple) represent autumn, and the crimson colors are really special to see as they change. Autumn is filled with unique cultural imagery, including viewing the full moon while eating a steaming sweet potato baked over hot stones and sipping sake. I'm not the only one who loves autumn: Japanese advertisers have a ball targeting consumers with advertisements reminding them to buy Kirin's season-limited Aki-Aji beer or consider a visit to Kyoto in its most beautiful season.

It's time for my annual "Damn, I wish I were in Kyoto now" post.

Cosplay Products from J-List!

Halloween is coming, and J-List just happens to have hundreds of fun anime cosplay and related products to help you have a great time this year. From Japanese eye patches and "socks glue" to the new Hatsune Miku face mask and brain-powered cat ears (which comes in U.S. and International versions), we've got some great items for you to browse. We also have authentic "Keep Out" tape which could come in handy for Persona 4 or Durarara cosplay. Click to see all our cosplay products, ranked by popularity!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Demonstrations in China: the View from Japan

This has certainly been a harrying week for violent protests. The Japanese government's purchase of the Senkaku Islands from their private owners, a move aimed at reducing extremist activity from both China and Japan, had the opposite effect as Chinese demonstrators ran amok, burning Japanese cars and smashing the windows of Japanese businesses in more than 100 cities. Although the destruction of property was very sad, it hasn't been without comedy, like the protester who defaced a Mercedes-Benz car thinking it was Mitsubishi, the mistaken attacks on "Japanese" businesses like McDonald's and Rolex, plus the "Japanese" Samsung factory that got burned down. (South Korea's Samsung encourages Chinese consumers to believe it's a Japanese company, advertising itself with images of Mt. Fuji to promote an image of quality, something it probably regrets now.) While the protesters were expressing anger at Japan's 1895 annexing of Senkaku/Diaoyu, China claims has been its territory since 1534, they were mostly harming their own countrymen, destroying Japanese cars owned by Chinese citizens and damaging businesses owned by Chinese shareholders. They were also doing a great deal of damage to relations with their neighbors (China has territorial disputes with most of its neighbors, who must be watching this week's developments nervously) as well as untold economic harm, just as its domestic economy is slowing down.
It's certainly been interesting to watch the drama unfold. While the Japanese news has covered the demonstrations, with various political commentators giving their opinions on the complex issues at play, most of the interesting news has only been available online. (Japan's free press is very quick to censor itself on various topics, leading many Japanese to turn to foreign news sources or the Internet to learn the whole story.) While Japanese are deeply concerned about the images they've been seeing, most expect things to return to some form of normalcy soon. ("It's just a festival they hold every few years," said one J-List staffer.) Always looking for an excuse to create new moe art, artists on Japan's 2ch BBS took riben guizi, a derogatory Chinese word meaning "Japanese devil" and made a cute character named Hinomoto Oniko (the Japanese reading of the same kanji characters). She's quite cute, and has become a popular Internet meme.

Severe anti-Japan protests in China; a protestor boasts online about the "Mitsubishi" logo he stole.

Japan's Post Office Adding Business Loans?

One theme I cover a lot is that capitalism in Japan doesn't work the way it does in other countries. For example, the free market here is rather "polite," with companies taking care to avoid targeting their competitors with cutthroat business practices. Panasonic's new line of televisions doesn't aim at knocking Sony's offerings out of the marketplace, and new Internet startups don't seek to destabilize existing businesses and benefit from the chaos that emerges. Another aspect of capitalism here is that the government -- national, prefectural and local -- involves itself with a lot of areas you'd expect the private sector to handle. Perhaps the best example of this is Japan Post, Japan's sprawling post office, which also operates as the world largest bank (they have $2.4 trillion in deposits) as well as a major seller of life insurance. These side businesses naturally bring it into competition with private banks and insurance companies, who loudly question why the government needs to be undercutting the private sector and taking away their business. Now Japan Post is planning on expanding to include business and housing loans, which has caused a new outcry from Japan's financial sector.

Japan Post draws fire for its expanding...services.

Anime Magazine Subscriptions from J-List

J-List has a popular revolving magazine subscription service which makes it easy for you to get the most popular anime, manga, fashion, racing and ecchi magazines sent to you each month. Japan's magazines are great, often giving readers rare omake (oh-mah-kay), which is Japanese for "free swag," like free posters, phone straps, figures and so on. Best of all, the subscriptions are month-to-month so you can cancel or change subscriptions at any time. Click to see our most popular Japanese magazine subscriptions now!

Monday, September 17, 2012

I Wish I Were in Kamakura Right Now

I get a lot of requests from people planning trips to Japan asking for places they should visit. For visits to the Kanto (Tokyo and Yokohama) area, one spot I always recommend is Kamakura, a charming city that's a 90 minute train ride away from Yokohama, great for taking a day trip. A picturesque city by the sea with a very long history, it hosts many temples and shrines, the most famous being the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine founded in 1063. Old stuff like this always floors me as an American, since nothing in the U.S. built by Europeans is half that old. Kamakura is most famous for the giant bronze statue of Buddha, the second largest in Japan, and this alone would make the city worth a trip even if it weren't one of the prettiest places in the country to visit. Kamakura is also home to one of the most famous train lines in Japan, the Enoshima Electric Railway (nicknamed "Enoden"), which has been in operation since 1900 and which is beloved by Japan's many train otaku, who come from miles away ride on it. (Watch the yuri anime Aoi Hana to see more of the beautiful Kamakura area and Enoden train line.)

The Great Buddha of Kamakura, the 2nd largest in Japan.

Sarcasm in Japanese

The concept of humor is a complex one, and it's not uncommon for something that's funny in one language to fall flat in another. I remember watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail with my wife, trying to explain the concept of "British understatement" to her, and why it's amusing for a powerful mage who can throw fireballs to have a run-of-the-mill name like Tim instead of something more extravagant. As an American, I'll occasionally take a statement I might make in English -- perhaps channeling Homer Simpson's classic "Look at me! I'm making people happy! I'm the Magical Man from Happy-Land, in a gumdrop house on Lollipop Lane!" -- and say it in Japanese, invariably receiving blank stares in return. It's no surprise my jokes don't always go over in Japanese, as the concepts of sarcasm (a sharp verbal mocking), irony (expressing humor with unexpected words, usually meaning the opposite of what you really want to communicate), and cynicism (a bitter and pessimistic view of life) all generally translate to the same word in Japanese (hiniku).

Concepts like sarcasm work differently in Japanese.

Birthrate Blues

Japan's birthrate is among the lowest in the industrialized world, with around 1.27 babies born per female compared with 1.39, 1.59, 1.82 and 2.1 for Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. As the number of children decline, causing schools to be closed and repurposed into more general community centers, more and more Japanese seem to be turning to something furrier: dogs. The number of dogs kept as pets has really shot up over the past decade, and every time I go shopping on the weekends I see a dozen or so animals in carts going shopping with their owners, usually being treated with a ridiculous amount of love and pampering. Pet ownership is rising so fast that that as of 2007 the country's dog population officially surpassed the number of human children. While dogs are the preferred pet, with dachshunds, chihuahuas and shiba dogs among the most popular breeds, Japanese families love their cats, too. (We could never choose between the two, so we have both.) By the way, if you're a fan of kawaii dogs or cute cats, J-List has some cute products you might want to check out.

With fewer children, Japan turns to puppies.

New 2013 Calendars Up!

We can tell Christmas is getting nearer because we are getting in more new products than we can easily fit into each update -- but we'll find a way somehow! In addition to today's new anime and manga magazine, figure, bento and other products we've got another volley of gorgeous 2013 calendars, like the new Accel World calendar, cute calendars for fans of animals like The Dog, The Cat, The Rabbit and so on, plus kanji calendars for anyone interested in learning about the beautiful characters, and a healthy serving of Japan's most beautiful AV stars.