Friday, October 19, 2012

20 Year After the "Freeze" Shooting

The Japanese have a unique relationship with the United States, and many are fascinated with our culture, from Hollywood to classic cars to cool "American" bands like Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones. (Just as it can be hard to differentiate Japanese, Chinese and Korean culture from the West, Britan and the U.S. tend to run together in the minds of Japanese people.) The father of one of my son's friends is a connoisseur of American World War II films, and I had a group of students who regularly toured the U.S. on Harley Davidsons, which is a pretty cool thing to do. Sadly, some Japanese who go to the U.S. don't come back, which happened with the sister of a former homestay student, who went to Nebraska to study English only to die in an unfortunate car accident. This week marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Yoshihiro Hattori, the Japanese high school student who was shot and killed when he mistakenly approached the wrong home while on his way to a Halloween party, certainly something that should not happen to anyone in any country. The event shocked and saddened Japan and burned the word "freeze" onto its collective psyche for all time, and I still remember the emergency "survival English conversation lessons" my school had me teach in the weeks after the shooting.

The Japanese love the USA, but sometimes there is sadness.

For the Japanese, "How to English" is Difficult

The Japanese do their best when it comes to learning English, with most taking six years in junior high and high school, and up to ten years if they take it in university. But although many master reading and writing, speaking it well can be another matter. Some of our words seem to be custom-made to frustrate poor Japanese ESL learners, and there are many categories of words that are as hard for them to pronounce as the hardest French words are for English speakers. Japanese famously lacks differentiation between L and R, and I had a Japanese friend who refused to discuss politics because she knew that sooner or later she'd have to use the word "election" and feared embarrassing herself. Nothing is harder for Japanese to pronounce than words that combine both L and R sounds, like jewelry, parallel and vocabulary, and words where the vowel is basically an "rrrr" sound, like girl, world or the last syllable of computer are also challenging. The big test for any Japanese student of English is, do people understand them when they go abroad, and all too often the answer is no, as in the case of a former student who asked for water in a restaurant and was brought a glass of beer. My wife does her best with English but sometimes life can be cruel: J-List's San Diego office has an employee named Marissa, and I have a niece named Melissa, and my wife never knows which person I'm talking about.

The Japanese study "How to English" but pronunciation is hard.

You Need a Map in Japan

Coming to Japan meant getting used to many things. Canned coffee, or corn and mayonnaise on pizza. Rooms that were often cold in winter, as Japanese homes lack American-style central heating. Also, the very idea of going to a place by looking up an address had to be thrown out the window. Except for certain major thoroughfares like National Road 17 which takes you to Tokyo, or the Prefectural Akagi Road which meanders up picturesque Mt. Akagi, roads in Japan lack names of any kind and are usually referred to abstractly, e.g. "the road between the elementary school and the convenience store." Adapting a French model, Japan breaks their land into prefectures (ken), cities (shi), and towns (machi or cho), with the towns divided into smaller blocks like 3-chome (third block), and so on. A Japanese address looks something like "Gunma-ken Isesaki-shi Sakura-cho 2-19-15," but if you ever try to visit a place based on this information you'll be driving around in circles, as the only people who can make sense of a Japanese address are postal workers. Instead, to find a given location you nearly always need a map, which is why most every printed advertisement will have a map indicating how customers can find the business. (Car GPS systems are also a very nice thing to have when driving in Japan, and I won't drive without one). In the new anime Onii-chan Dakedo Ai Sae Areba Kankei Nai yo ne (which you can remember using the short name of OniAi), Akiko wanders around Tokyo trying to find the house where her oniichan lives in, eventually asking a policeman to help her find it.

You definitely need a map to get anywhere  in Japan.

More 2013 Calendars from Japan

We're in the middle of 2013 Anime Calendar Season, and this year's calendars are just about the best we've ever seen. We've posted a great volley of calendars we just got in stock, including IdolMaster and Pokemon and this year's 2013 Totoro and Ghibli 3D calendars (which are different every year, and great to use as photo stands when the year is up. Also see great new preorder offerings too, like Chunibyo Demo Koi ga Shitai and Gackt. Click to see the newest 2013 calendars from Japan!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Happy Karaoke Culture Day!

Do you like karaoke? If so then we have good news: today has been designated as Karaoke Culture Day by the National Karaoke Industry Association of Japan. Karaoke (pronounced kah-rah-OH-kay) literally means "empty orchestra" (the kara is the same from karate, in case you were wondering), and it was invented in 1971 by Daisuke Inoue, a musician from Kobe who kept getting asked to make instrumental-only recordings of his music by fans, which gave him the idea of a "music box" that would pass a microphone signal through speakers. His idea led to a revolution in the way people enjoy each other's company (or annoy each other, depending your feelings on karaoke) and sparked a multi-billion dollar global industry -- though Mr. Inoue never saw any of that as it didn't occur to him to patent his invention. I'm a big fan of karaoke, and found it a useful tool for learning Japanese, since memorizing the lyrics of Japanese songs I wanted to sing is a darned good way of internalizing vocabulary, plus I can sing the song to myself if I forget the word. Using karaoke as a Japanese study tool also deepened my relationship with Japan itself, since I wouldn't have come to love the Tohoku region of the country if I hadn't discovered the joy of singing enka, which no one expects foreigners to be able to sing.

Happy Karaoke Culture Day, everyone!

The 2nd Richest Man in Japan

I saw that Japanese cellphone company Softbank is making a major investment into Sprint, the third largest cellular operator in the U.S., and since the founder of the company is one of Japan's more interesting businessmen, I thought I'd write a bit about him. His name is Masayoshi Son (孫正義), and if his family name doesn't sound particularly Japanese to you, it's because it's Korean: Mr. Son was born as a zainichi ("residing in Japan") Korean, a large minority of people who are born and raised in Japan yet who maintain North or South Korean identify for cultural reasons impossible for Westerners us to comprehend. (Mr. Son took Japanese citizenship in 1990.) While he was in high school, he brashly visited the office of the legendary Japanese businessman Den Fujita, responsible for launching McDonald's and later Toys R Us in Japan, returning again and again until his business idol agreed to meet with him. Mr. Fujita told him he should go to America to study English and learn how to invest in microchips, as they were the future. Masayoshi got off to a good start, selling a translation device he patented to Sharp for $1 million and using that money to start a company importing Space Invaders machines from Japan to Berkeley during the coin-op video game boom. He slowly grew his empire, founding Yahoo's successful Japan subsidiary and taking over Vodafone's cellular operations, eventually bringing the iPhone to Japan. Son, Japan's second riches man, is a great example of how successful a person can be when he thinks outside the box, something that can be surprisingly difficult for Japanese people to do.

We wish Mr. Son well...I hope he doesn't 損
(son, Japanese for 'financial loss').

Fewer Children in Japan

I often write about Japan's falling birth rate since it's one of the more visible challenges the country is facing now. Signs of shoshika -- the social problem of fewer and fewer children each year -- are everywhere, from the unneeded elementary schools that are decomissioned and turned into community centers to the shock I received when a toy store in our neighborhood went out of business and was replaced by a shop selling Buddhist altars and gravestones. Most families have one or two children, though Yasu, the J-List employee who stocks our site with manga and Japanese study books, has three charming daughters, and we congratulate him for doing his part to repopulate Japan. Having a really large family is a rare enough thing to get you on TV, as I saw the other day when I happened to catch a show about a husband and wife that had 13 children living in my own city of Isesaki. The family operates a soba noodle restaurant that isn't very successful, and the show was full of feel-good images of the kids trying to think of ways to get more customers into the shop. So if you've got a large family, move to Japan and you might find yourself on TV!

Having lots of kids will make you famous in Japan.

Hatsune Miku's Pantsu and More @ J-List

J-List loves Hatsune Miku, the virtual idol created to promote Yamaha's innovative voice simulation software, and we have tons of her products in stock, from limited Sakuma Drops w/Vocaloid keychains included to the gorgeous 2013 Hatsune Miku calendar and Blu-ray live concert videos to her official pantsu and more. Click to see some of our favorite Hatsune Miku products now.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Language Play in Japanese Advertisements

Each language has its own unique phonetic features and potential for language play, some of which are picked up by advertisers to create messages around. In Japanese, the word zo (zoh) means "increase" or "more" (as in "50% more free"), but it's also the word for elephant -- hence, it's not uncommon for a TV commercial to make use of elephants to reinforce the image of getting more free for buying such-and-such brand. Similarly, rakuda is the word for camel, but it also means "[this] is very comfortable and convenient," so every few years some company will make a TV commercial featuring camels basking in comfort because of some product. Dogs say "woof!" in English, but to the Japanese the sound is wan!, and some companies create cute dog characters showing that they're "number wan" (number one) in their respective industries. The word mou (moh) means "already" but it's also the local version of "moo," and so, it's common for commercial messages to be communicated using cows saying things like, "Stop wasting your money on brand X, already!" Finally, the word kaeru means "to change" (it's the same kanji as the hen in hentai), but the word also means "frog." Thus NTT makes use of frogs in its advertisements about companies facing the neverending changes the business world.

An advertisement from NTT about "changes," drawn by a frog.

Bored, Unmotivated Main Characters in Anime

It can be interesting to analyze the themes used in the creation of characters for anime and manga: the fiery tsundere girls, the bokuko tomboy girls who talk like boys, the omnipresent rich ojosama girls who belong to wealthy zaibatsu families. One common theme seen in a lot of anime series is the use of a Japanese male main character who is bored and generally lacks ambition, with no idea what he wants to do with his life. Maybe the character is ecchi, maybe he has some interesting secret like a latent power or gaps in his memory that must be explored, but in general these bland "Joe Everyman" characters are similar to each other, presumably designed so that the majority of (Japanese) viewers can identify with them. In Hyouka, the main character is Houtarou Oreki, an unmotivated young man who shows his lack of enthusiasm at every turn, with his mussed hair and clothes and half-open eyelids, despite his penchant for solving mysteries whenever Chitanda becomes "curious" (ki ni narimasu!). Other generic main characters include Sasahara from Genshiken, who goes on a journey of discovery about what it is to become an otaku, the snarky Kyon from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Junichi from Amagami, as well as nearly every other main character in "harem" stories.

Oreki is a typical unmotivated main character.

Safely Back in Japan

I'm safely back in Japan after a pleasant flight on Korean Airlines, which I chose because I like their bibimbap, and hearing the sing-song voices of the flight attendants makes me imagine I'm inside one of my wife's Korean dramas. Some might say being trapped in a flying metal tube for 12 hours from LAX to Narita would be a difficult thing, but I prefer flying internationally to taking domestic flights in the U.S., which have added added stress due to incessant flight delays and rushing for hub connections. As usual, it feels somewhat strange to be back in Japan -- the neat order of the rice fields as seen from the air near Narita seemed to embody the way Japan's society is much more organized and ordered than the U.S., with little squares and boxes for people to fit themselves into -- but that might have just been the high altitude getting to me. If this update should trail off suddenly, it means I've surrendered to the jet lag that's dragging me down right now...

The first sight of Japan, when approaching Narita.

Random Preorder Products @ J-List

J-List carries thousands of products, including hundreds of upcoming anime figures, gorgeous printed tapestries, beautifully printed 2013 calendars, epic cosplay products and more, available as preorder products. Sometimes I like to browse the preorders sorted by customer awesomeness ranking to see what products are being preordered the most. Remember, preorder products are held without being charged until the items are ready to ship out to you, and no payment is required before we have the items on hand for you.