Friday, October 05, 2012

The Cutest Buddhist Statues in Japan

There are many images of Japan that have become famous all over the world, like solemn temples with statues of Buddha inside, Shinto shrines with their red torii arches, ancient castles and of course Mt. Fuji. (Some images of Japan, such as geisha, are probably more famous than they should be, considering they've completely vanished from modern Japan.) When you come to Japan, it's common to encounter things you can't categorize culturally, and something that fell into this category for me were the little stone statues I saw by the side of the road, often wearing red bibs around their heads. They're called jizo or ojizo-sama, and they're Buddhist statues that represent compassionate beings (perhaps similar to Christian saints) who have attained enlightenment yet remain on Earth to help others. Jizo are the protectors of children, and the statues are placed by the side of the road to help them get home safely. These jizo statues show up in anime from time to time, for example Satsuki and Mei ask one if they can take shelter from the rain in My Neighbor Totoro.
One of the most famous children's stories in Japan is that of the Kasa Jizo, or the Umbrella Hat Jizo Statues, which I'll tell here. Once there was an old couple who was so poor, they couldn't even afford mochi rice cakes to celebrate New Year's Day. To get some money, the man wove five kasa (umbrella hats, which keep rain and snow off you) and went to the village to sell them, but he couldn't sell a single one. Resigned to having no rice cakes for New Years, he headed for home, but happened to pass by some stone jizo statues that were silently guarding the road. They were covered with snow and seemed terribly cold, so he decided to donate the hats to the statues so they'd be dry and comfortable, giving the last one the tenugui scarf on his own head when he ran out of hats. That night, the old couple heard a noise outside, and opened the door to see a pile of mochi rice cakes, fish, daikon radishes plus gold coins. The gifts had been brought by the jizo statues as thanks for the selfless gift of the hats the old man had made to them.
(If you're interested in these jizo statues, we've got a cute one that doubles as a piggy bank.)

Buddhist "jizo" statues are the protectors of children.

Anime Snacks and Drinks @ J-List

J-List sells a lot of fun anime-related snacks from Japan, including popular drinks like Tentacle Grape and unique varieties of Pepsi, plus Madoka Magika wafer cookies with awesome collectible cards inside, Kompeito star-shaped candies seen in Spirited Away, the official caramels of My Neighbor Totoro and those new "Yandere Cookies" in the only-slightly-awkward gift box. Click to see the most popular anime-themed snacks on the site now!

Political Parties and Japan

The U.S. is in "election mode" right now, so I thought I'd compare politics between America and Japan a bit. A lot of people lament the two-party system in the U.S., which makes it very difficult for a strong third party to emerge and win elections, but Japan shows having multiple parties doesn't necessarily make things better. The two major political parties in Japan are the currently-ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which draws support from employees in companies and middle-class voters from urban areas, and the pro-business Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which gets most of its support from more rural areas, including Japan's many rice farmers. In addition to the two major parties, there's a plethora of smaller parties with representation in the legislature, including the Japan Communist Party, the New Komeito (the de facto political arm of the Soka Gakkai Buddhist religion), the conservative Tachiagare, Nippon! ("Rise Up, Japan!") party, or the Okinawa Social Party, which promotes issues important to Okinawa. New parties are formed all the time. For example, when powerful politician Ichiro Ozawa (no relation to Maria Ozawa, wouldn't that be cool?) didn't like the way the vote on the Japanese consumption tax hike went, he took the 48 representatives in his faction and pulled out of the DPJ, forming the People's Life First party. So while having more choices for which political party you want to belong to might be nice, it doesn't matter much if the leadership is ineffective, as it invariably is in Japan.

Japan has many political parties, but it doesn't get them anywhere.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

How To Say "Like" and "Love" in Japanese

If you watch anime in Japanese at all, one word you may have learned is suki which means "like," usually pronounced quickly so that it sounds like "ski." This compels all students of the language to say sukii ga suki! (I like skiing) as soon as they learn the word since it sounds funny to the ear. The proper usage would be something like watashi wa sushi ga suki desu, literally "as for sushi, I like it," but since the Japanese love to omit words from their sentences, a more common phrase would be just sushi ga suki, "[I] like sushi," since the subject is generally understood. In addition to serving as "like," suki also describes feelings of romantic love, and when someone confesses their feelings for another, suki desu is what they'll probably say. A variation of suki ("like") is dai-suki ("big-like"), usually said by a cute female anime character before they glomp a male character violently in a big bear-hug.

Suki desu is the most common way to confess your love for someone.

Steak in America

When I'm in the U.S., I like to take the chance to drive around to different places in my 2002 Miata, like Reno or San Francisco or hunting for Star Wars locations in Death Valley. Over the weekend I drove up to Palm Springs, a pleasant little city with some nice resort hotels and a giant statue of Marilyn Monroe that I'd have expected to see in Japan rather than America. While I was there, I went into a restaurant and ordered a nice steak. When it arrived, I did something that surprised me: I reached for the plate of hot steaming white rice that should have been next to my steak, but of course wasn't. In Japan, you always get a plate of steamed white rice (always called "rice" using the English word, never gohan as it's called in Japanese, as steak is "Western" food). It's nice to eat the meat and rice together...the juices blend nicely with the rice and make it all taste great. I guess I'll have some when I get back to Japan.

The Japanese usually eat steak and rice together.

The Japanese "Peace" Sign

If you go to Japan, you'll see many things there. Beautiful temples and shrines and sakura trees. Vending machines that accept the equivalent of a $100 bill then bow to you after you've made your purchase. Squid-and-mayonnaise pizza and green tea ice cream, plus a favorite of mine, aloe flavored yogurt. You're also likely to see people taking photographs while making the "peace" sign, known as "V for victory" in another age. It's the most Japanese of gestures, the hand automatically making this sign just about anytime someone pulls out a camera. No one is completely sure when the gesture became a part of the Japanese gestalt -- it could have come about as a result of the U.S. occupation, been imported during the anti-war years of the 60s, or (according to another source) it could have gotten popular during the 1972 Sapporo Olympics, when U.S. skater Janet Lynn fell during her routine then made the "peace" gesture as she got up to hide her embarrassment. The best theory seems to be this: in 1972 Konica hired actor and comedian Jun Inoue to promote its newest camera in a magazine ad. The actor ad-libbed the peace sign during the photoshoot, and this reverberated greatly with the Japanese public. Of course, the gesture is closely tied to photography, since saying "peace" makes you smile in the same way we "say cheese" in the West. Japanese also say "what's one plus one?" which is ni in Japanese, if you want to try this on Japanese people and watch them jump out of their shoes in surprise.

Exploring the origin of the Japanese "peace" gesture.

J-List's 16th Anniversary Sale

Remember, October is J-List's anniversary month, and we're having a big sale to celebrate. This month, you can get 2x J-List Points on all anime cosplay and Japanese fashion products, as well as all English visual novels and eroge. J-List points give you an instant discount on your next order. You can use them at any time, or store them to get larger discounts later. We'd like to say thank you for being such great customers and making our job a happy one! (You can see all sale products ranked by "wishlist" popularity using this link.)

Monday, October 01, 2012

The Real "Yakuza" in Japan

I saw that the U.S. had taken action to freeze the assets of a major yakuza group in the U.S., so I thought I'd write about what it's like to live in a country alongside such a flamboyant class of criminals. The yakuza, of course, are a group of highly organized criminal gangs with roots going back to the Edo Period, who profit from protection schemes, illegal gambling, high-interest loans to people who can't qualify for bank loans, and so on. The name "yakuza" comes from the numbers 893, which add up to the worst possible hand possible in the traditional Japanese card game Hanafuda, making the name similar to the Internet meme "orz" (showing a man bowing in disgrace) in meaning. While violence between yakuza gangs sometimes flares up, they're extremely careful never to harm civilians, both out of Japanese-style politeness and to maintain the truce they have with police. While groups such as the Yamaguchi-gumi and Sumiyoshi-kai do engage in many kinds of illegal activities, they view themselves as a chivalrous organizations, and they were among the first groups to organize shipments of blankets, food and water to the thousands of people affected by the March 11 earthquakes and tsunamis last year.
Being a fan of Japanese sento (public baths) and onsen (volcanically heated hot springs), I've encountered many colorful yakuza over the years, as it's quite common to see them bathing with their full-body dragon tattoos. They're very polite, of course, and always interested to meet a foreigner who can speak Japanese with them. One even asked if I could tutor his daughter in English, although that was a little more weirdness than I could stand at the time, and I turned him down politely. It's generally considered a smart idea for businessmen to cultivate good relations with the local yakuza bosses, and we've got a friend who owns a small factory near our house who has a lot of these connections. He tells us, "If you ever get into any kind of trouble, just let me know and I'll have it seen to by some friends of mine." Yakuza are related to the bosozoku (lit. "violent running tribe"), those annoying motorcycle gangs that drive through Japanese cities making as much noise as they can, who run various errands for the larger groups.

Observing the "real" yakuza in Japan.

Typhoon Season in Japan

Japan, of course, is a very seasonal place, with a strong tradition of doing different things during each of the "four" seasons. In reality there are more like eight seasons in Japan, since the dreary rainy season in June-July is nothing like true summer, and the super windy period in December called kara-kaze is very different from real winter. September is typhoon season, when most storms blow up from the Pacific to wreak havoc on Japan, usually hitting the southern islands of Okinawa or Kyushu but often reaching the more populated areas around Osaka, Nagoya and Tokyo. Yesterday Typhoon no. 17 (also known as Typhoon Jelawat, though Japan always uses numbers instead of names) made landfall smack in the center of the country, with 180kph winds that broke trees and downed lines and washed one unfortunate man out to sea. It also overturned an itasha car decorated with characters from the Clannad anime, to the general horror of Japan's anime blog readers.

September is 'typhoon season,' and very dangerous.

J-LIst Anniversary Sale!

October 1st is the 16th anniversary of the founding of J-List! Yes, it was 16 years ago that we officially founded this wonky company, determined to create an awesome place to buy anime figures and manga and related products directly from Japan. The years brought many changes in technology as well as in the world we all live in, but thanks to our awesome customers J-List is doing better than ever. To commemorate our anniversary, we're having a sale on all anime cosplay and Japanese fashion products, as well as all English visual novels and eroge -- during this month, get 2x J-List points on all these awesome products. And thanks for being a great J-List customer!