Friday, October 12, 2012

Preserving the "wa" in Relationships in Japan

Many English speakers know the Japanese word wa, which means harmony and peace, and it's not rare to hear someone say, "Man you're really messing up my wa, dude." But there's a similar word wa that's probably more important to daily life in Japan, meaning ring, hoop, or circle, and is the word most used to describe a circle of friends or some other group of mutual acquaintances. The Japanese are, of course, a very group-oriented people, and there are mechanisms in place for ensuring that relationships work smoothly all around. Back in my teaching days, I observed that every Japanese seems to have at least two sets of core friends: those they've known since elementary and junior high school, which are where compulsory education in Japan ends; and a different set of friends who they met in high school. (Everyone is very careful to manage these relationships separately, as mixing groups of friends wil result in way too much politeness.) One of the major themes in a lot of anime series is the way love interests disrupt the balance in a circle of close friends. In Kokoro Connect, Inaba is torn apart by her love for the main protagonist, Taichi, but tries to say nothing lest the group "become unable to be together as five people, together." More than the love she feels for someone, preserving the happiness of the group is more important.

Preserving the balance of relationships is important in Japan.

Are the Japanese Conservative?

Although the Japanese may have a reputation of being quite open-minded when it comes to sex, what with their open views about the need for "love hotels" in a society where the oldest sons generally live with their parents permanently, and their laissez faire attitude about mild nudity being shown on late-night broadcast TV, in truth the Japanese are extremely conservative about many things. I once went to Thailand with my wife, and we were on a beach with many female tourists from Europe who were sunbathing topless. I slyly suggested that she could do the same if she wanted, and she exploded with embarrassed reaction that would have rivaled Taiga Aisaka. The Japanese are also extremely suspicious of the European custom of friends kissing each other on the cheeks, something that gets parodied in anime from time to time ("Don't you know? In the West it's just a greeting"). Every women I've ever known in Japan uses pads instead of tampons, the idea of the latter being somehow scandalous, and if you suggest to a Japanese woman that she try using tampons she'll turn red and giggle like a little girl. 

Japanese are conservative about many things.

Fun with Japanese Brand Names

Well, my little trip to the U.S. has come to an end, and it's time to head back to Japan. I'm loaded up with various things I've purchased, like bubble bath, dental floss (it's quite expensive in Japan) and packets of Taco Bell taco sauce that my son asked me to bring back. See everyone on the other side!
One of the fun aspects of learning Japanese was unlocking the meanings of words I already knew in the form of Japanese company names. A lot of names are abbreviations, like Ricoh (short for Riken Kankoshi or Scientific Light-Sensetized Paper), or Kyocera ("Kyoto Ceramics"). Icons important to the Japanese find their way into company names a lot, like Asahi ("morning sun"), Hitachi ("rising sun") and Sunrise Animation, and naturally Mt. Fuji is well represented in company names like Fujitsu (which started out as Fuji Telecommunications Equipment Manufacturing before they shortened the name). Many corporations are named after their founders, like the automobile company Souichiro Honda launched in 1946, or the chocolate company Taichichiro Morinaga created after studying confectionery-making in San Francisco, or Bridgestone, founded by Shojiro Ishibashi ("stone-bridge"). Often Japanese company names have interesting stories attached to them, like Subaru, the name for the star cluster the Pleades, which was formed when several failing companies including Nakajima Aircraft (which built the infamous Zeros) banded together after World War II, or Datsun, created as the "son" of founders Den, Aoyama, and Takeuchi, though this was changed to "sun" as "son" is Japanese for financial loss (don't tell Softbank owner Masatoshi Son, Japan's richest man). The reason so many company names like Nikon, Nissan and Nissin start with ni is that the name of Japan in Japanese is nihon. Some others company names include SEGA ("Service Games of Japan"), a company founded by an American to import pinball machines to American military bases, and EPSON ("Son of Electric Printer"), which is rather silly. Speaking of silly, Sony started out Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo Kaisha (Tokyo Communications Engineering Company) but changed its name because founder Akio Morita liked the then-common English phrase "sonny boy."

It's fun to trace the origins of company names.

Fun Cosplay from J-List

J-List carries dozens of fun cosplay products from Japan, from shimapan striped anime underwear for cosplay and other uses to those "spats" tight bicycle shorts worn by your favorite magical girls to real costume uniforms you can use this Halloween. Just in time, we got the oh-so-wacky horse head masks in stock which turn you from a human to a bizarre horse in seconds. The smash hit product of the San Diego Comic-con, these masks are available for order, and we'll rush it out to you ASAP.important.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Japanese Love Tests

The Japanese love to take standardized tests, and many people use them as a tool to better themselves over the course of their lives. While most of the tests are pretty run-of-the-mill, qualifying a person's abilities at speaking English, say, or using various software tools in a business environment, there are quite a few interesting ones, such as a test for calculating numbers rapidly with an imaginary abacus, your fingers moving over wooden beads that aren't there. There are tests for speedy and accurate operating of a cash register in a supermarket, a test for maids, a test for memorizing a train schedule, and (good for us gaijin), the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. My wife is what's known as a shikaku getter or someone who loves to "collect" random qualifications. She's got a license to prepare sushi and sashimi, is legally able to operate a forklift, and has a certification for handling dangerous materials, in case J-List ever wants to open a gas station as a side business. There's even a Hello Kitty Standardized Test, commissioned by Sanrio. I assume the test consists various trivia like, how tall is Hello Kitty? (as tall as five apples) and so on.

The Japanese love to take standardized tests, on almost every subject.

How Kanji Names Work

Foreigners are fascinated by kanji characters because they're so different from anything we use -- the idea of capturing complex meanings in pictographs rather than sounds as our alphabet does is very exotic. Kanji may look like random squiggles at first, but it's a highly evolved writing system that packs a lot of information into each character. A good example is the way words like language, to speak, to read and to translate all share the same left side (the "radical"), which happens to look like a stack of books on a table, making it possible to guess at meanings based on the elements the characters contain. Although the "official" way to write the names of foreigners is using the katakana writing system, it's quite fun for foreigners to assign kanji characters to their names instead, and J-List sells custom name stamps with your name rendered in kanji, chosen by our native Japanese staff so you don't have to worry about your kanji meaning "diarrhea" or anything. I went a step beyond other foreigners: partially by accident, I officially registered my name with complex kanji characters. As a result, filling out legal forms in Japanese is incredibly difficult, and my wife is often asked if her husband is Chinese.

Foreigners are fascinated by kanji characters.

2013 Japanese Calendar Update

The 2013 Japanese Calendar Season is raging, and J-List has hundreds of amazing anime, Japanese idol, traditional art and photo and ecchi calendars in stock for you, and now is a great time to get your order in. About 30% of the calendars are in stock and shipping now, and the rest will be in stock in the next 2-3 weeks. These calendars make outstanding gifts for Christmas, and great gifts to yourself, too. Click here to see the most popular 2013 calendars!

Eye Patch Moe

Hello from Japan, where the words "not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin" mean something very different.
In addition to writing these updates three times a week, I post interesting images to the J-List Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook pages, along with links to newly updated products. (Click through and follow us, if you like!) It's not uncommon for people reading my posts to ask what moe means, and since today, Oct 10, is "Moe Day" (because the date looks like the moe kanji if you write it a certain way), I thought I'd write a bit about this. Moe (always pronounced mo-eh) is a genre of (mostly) female character design traits that are calculated to elicit feelings of love and protectiveness by (mostly) male fans. While moe is about many things -- the large, expressive eyes, the impossibly cute hair and hair accessories -- to me it's all about the character imperfections that become what the Japanese call "charm points." Whether it's the extreme dojikko clumsiness and meganekko glasses of Homura from episode 10 of Madoka Magika or the extreme shyness of Mio from K-On! or even the realistic boredom and melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi, the "defects" in the characters are what really make them interesting. A variation of this is "bandage moe," the odd cuteness of girls who are injured, with casts and possibly IV drips in their arms, or the ever-popular eye patch moe. I recently started watching the new anime Chunibyo Demo Koi ga Shitai, which features a hyperactive girl with the cutest eye patch this side of Ayanami Rei. Incidentally, we've got these eye patches in stock if you want one for Halloween or other cosplay uses.

Chunibyo is a new anime for "eye patch moe" fans.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Making Mistakes with Foreign Languages

Making errors when speaking a foreign language comes with the territory, and smart language learners will do what they can to embrace their own screw-ups as a positive way of moving forward with their language studies. At the very least, it's important to avoid being so scared of making an error that you never open your mouth, which is a problem a lot of Japanese learners of English have. Wanting to avoid linguistic slip-ups, they prefer to pre-load their "brain cache" before speaking rather than just opening their mouth and letting the words fall out naturally. I've made plenty of large and small errors over the years, for example there was the time I confused the word hinan (to evacuate) with hinin (to use a contraceptive) in mixed company, or all the times I confused "mango" with a similar word that refers to the female reproductive parts in front of a pretty waitress. Before I married my wife, we were planning what photographs we wanted taken at the wedding, and she kept telling me how she wanted a picture of her standing on "the glass." I couldn't understand what she was saying -- did she want a picture of herself standing on a reflective surface while wearing her dress? -- but it turned out she was talking about the grass lawn in front of the chapel in San Diego.

Linguistic mistakes are everywhere, you just have to embrace them and move forward.

Japan, America and Bubble Bath

It's funny how smell has the power to capture memories like nothing else. Every summer we burn Japanese mosquito coils (called katori senko or "mosquito-killing incense"), and the pleasant fragrance of the burning coils never fails to bring back memories of summers gone by. The same is true of the space heaters used in most Japanese homes in the winter -- that first whiff of the kerosene fumes always transports me back in time. I'm here in the U.S. for a couple weeks, and keep encountering unique smells that aren't present in Japan, like the strong smell of Tide laundry detergent or Bounce dryer sheets that Mom used to use, or the lemon scent of those terribly inadequate "moist towelettes" you get to wipe your hands in barbecue restaurants. (They should follow the Japanese model and give customers hot steaming towels instead.) The product that seems to capture the smell of America more than any other for my family is Mr. Bubble bubble bath, and I'll be bringing several bottles home with me when I head back to Japan.

Mr. Bubble captures the smell of America to me.

Japanese Chocolate Season 2012-2013 Starts

Announcing the start of the 2012-2013 Japan Chocolate Season! It's finally gotten cool enough in Japan that we've been able to post our most popular products, including Japanese Pocky, Nestle Kit Kat and other fun chocolate items. This year we've got some amazing offerings, including some favorites from last spring that will sell out and be gone forever. Click to see the new Japanese Kit Kat and Pocky items!

Hard to say "Sayonara"?

Something about living in another country can make a person think introspectively about themselves. When I started J-List back in 1996, I kept on teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) for a couple of years, slowly quitting my classes as J-List grew to consume all my waking hours. When it came time for me to quit my last teaching job, the school I'd been working for threw me a party, complete with karaoke and all the trimmings. Afterwards, I got a ride home with one of my students, an interesting lady in her 40s who was studying English because she wanted to live abroad for a few years. "Well," I said as we neared my house, "I'll see you later." "No, you won't," she replied. "A person has the same number of sayonaras in their lives as first meetings, and we won't see each other again. But please be genki in your future life." For some reason, being told "goodbye" in such absolute terms was more honesty than I was used to, and I was somewhat unsettled by her words. It seemed to me that the kokumin-sei or "national character" of Americans (or at least this American) was not geared to acknowledging partings so completely, causing us to use lighthearted parting words like "see you later" instead. There was another example of this in a recent episode of Kokoro Connect, when Aoki travels to Sendai to tell his old girlfriend Nana that he's found a girl he cares for, and she tells him "Sayonara" with finality as he walks away.

The Japanese seem good at saying sayonara.