Friday, October 26, 2012

Dialects in Japanese

Every language has dialects, and Japanese is no different. I've heard that since Japanese people are more likely to stay in the same place all their lives, or move to Tokyo for work or education then do a "U-turn" (as the Japanese call it) back to their home prefecture a few years later, the country's dialects are more pronounced than in other countries for this reason. Often dialects are used to add a new dimension to a character in anime, and if you have a group of females in a given show, you can bet there'll be one whose "charm point" is speaking some cute but odd-sounding variant of Japanese. Beyond the major dialects -- rough and comical Osaka-ben, eerily polite Kyoto-ben, Gaelic-sounding Tohoku-ben from Northern Japan -- it's funny to observe the "artificial" dialect of gaijin-ben, the over-inflected Japanese that foreigners are known to speak, which is often used by radio DJs and announcers on TV shows to add a "chic" flavor to their speech.

Nisemonogatari is the anime that will make you appreciate Kyoto-ben.

Japan and Equality of the Sexes

I saw a report that Japan had fallen to 101st out of 135 countries with regards to gender equality, dropping from 98th place last year. The gender equality ranking is based on four factors with regards to women in society -- economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment -- and Japan was ranked at the bottom of all G-8 countries, after Italy (rank 80). It's difficult to know how to feel about Japan's low ranking, below Azerbaijan (99) and only a few points ahead of Cambodia (103), India (105) and Kuwait (109). On the one hand, Japan is still a largely male-dominated country in which males hold most powerful government posts and corporate jobs. On the other hand, Japan's women are extremely well educated, and have a large array of potential economic and political choices open to them -- including pausing their working years to raise kids before returning later if they so choose -- and enjoy the longest lifespans in the world. True, when I first came to Japan I was surprised to see job listings for "female, age 30 and below" printed in the newspaper, and my wife's first job back in the 80s mostly involved memorizing how each male employee of her company took his green tea, but those days are gone. The long recessions of the past two decades have helped Japan move forward with regard to equality, too: when we started J-List back in 1996, a company with a female president (my wife) would have been a rarity in our rural corner of Japan, yet now as she does business with bankers and accountants there's nary a raised eyebrow from anyone. In the end, I believe there's too much of a cultural gap between Scandinavian countries (at the top of the equality ranking) and Japan for any ranking to really be meaningful.
So what do you think? Is Japan a terrible place for women or a pretty good place for them?

Does Japan deserve its low equality ranking?

"Gangnam Style" As Seen from Japan

The Korean rap song "Gangnam Style" has become a huge phenomenon, introducing people all over the world to the randomness of K-POP. But for various reasons, the song hasn't been all that popular here in Japan, in part because no Japanese version was released (most K-POP groups release one here) and also because Japanese are tiring of Korean culture after a summer of squabbles over islands and unprecedented insults to their Emperor. It's widely believed that Korean fans express their patriotism by repeatedly pressing the "F5" (reload) key in Internet Explorer in order to push the YouTube view counts of their favorite videos up, something which the president of the Korean Wave Research Institute, a group funded by the South Korean government to promote K-POP around the world, angrily dismissed. According to Yasu, the staff member who keeps our site stocked with artbooks and awesome 2013 calendars, there's another reason the song hasn't caught on here: Japanese fans don't like it. He says, "To Japanese, what's good about K-POP is it's approach to beauty. The extreme beauty of the male or female stars as they perform, the many hours they spent preparing for a performance, that's enjoyable to see. We don't feel the same 'beauty' when we watch Gangnam Style."

Japanese have been cool towards "Gangnam Style."

J-List Mobile Site is Up!

We've got some good news to tell about today: we've officially launched our mobile site, a great mobile version of the J-List site for use with an iPhone, Android smartphone or similar device. To access it, just visit from any mobile device (or if the redirect doesn't work for some reason). The site is still "beta" -- it works great but a few features are still due to be added in the coming weeks. (The site for PG products isn't up yet, but will be in a couple days.) If you have any feedback on the new site, please let us know!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Random Questions about Japan People Have Googled

Google has changed all our lives and added several points to our collective IQs, for which I'm very grateful. If you type part of a question into Google, it will pop up with some suggested searches based on what other people have searched for, which sometimes leads to unexpected results like, "Why is my quiche watery?" or "Is sushi an aphrodisiac?" I thought I'd pick ten questions about Japan I randomly found on Google and answer them, in case anyone finds this useful.
Why do Japanese wear face masks?
Many Japanese wear what appear to us to be surgical masks when in public, if they're sick (in part as a courtesy to others) or if influenza is going around (to protect themselves). These masks inspired the founder of Aflac to open a branch in Japan, which was one of the most successful business decisions of the 20th century.
Why do Japanese girls have bad teeth?
It's not uncommon for Japanese to have crooked teeth, in part because orthodontic standards are somewhat behind the U.S. and Europe, and also because many Japanese believe crooked teeth to be cute. They're called yaeba and are often found in moe anime characters, represented as a single fang.
Why do Japanese people live longer?
Many reasons, including differences in diet (more fish, less meat) and smaller portions, preferring unsweetened Japanese tea to soft drinks, and having a society with strong social relationships which provide ikigai (a reason to go on living) late in life.
Why does Japan drive on the left?
Along with the U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, Japan drives on the left side of the road. The historical reason appears to be that Japan hired a British engineer in 1870 to plan its rail system, which began a tradition of Japan following the United Kingdom in all things transportation-related.
Do Japanese women eat sushi when pregnant?
The J-List staff tells me they often crave it, but most expectant mothers avoid fish for fear of ingesting too much mercury.
Do Japanese say I love you?
Of course. There are two ways to say this, suki desu (lit. "I like you" but with a strong romantic implication) and ai shiteru ("I love you," usually considered too strong for casual use). Japanese men don't like to talk like this to their girlfriends or wives often because "it's better to say it infrequently and appear stoic and manly" (according to my sources).
Why does the Japanese flag look like that?
Japan's name means "the origin of the sun" (since it is, as seen from China), and the flag, called hinomaru ("circle of the sun") represents that. Japanese women draw little Japanese flags on their calendars every 28 days, which I find extremely cute.
Why do Japanese get nosebleeds?
The gag of a character getting a nosebleed when he or she gets excited dates back to a 1970 manga published in Shonen Jump called Yasuji's Life Lessons for Messed Up Kids. It's basically a meme that's been around for four decades and counting.
Why do Japanese names end in vowels?
All Japanese words do, unless they end with the consonant "n." Japanese is a syllable-based language in which you can express ka, ki, ku, ke or ko but never a "k" by itself, and all syllables consist of a consonant and a vowel, or the "n" sound.
Why do Japanese women cover their mouths when they laugh?
It's considered rude and unfeminine for women to show their teeth, and they'll generally cover their mouth while laughing. Also, Japanese of both sexes cover their teeth with one hand while using a toothpick -- and I do it too, having been here so long.

Some questions about Japan answered, if you are curious.

Fall in Japan Update

Fall is my favorite time of year in Japan. The weather is nearly always pleasant, and there's nothing like going for a drive in the mountains around J-List to take in the beauty of the leaves as they change color. Autumn is known as minori no aki, shokuyoku no aki or "the season of harvest, the season of hearty appetites," and some of the most exquisite Japanese dishes can be enjoyed during this time of year. Fall is also the season for undokai, or School Sports Day, a very big deal to anyone with kids in Japan. The events are almost always the same, no matter what part of the country you're in: students are organized into teams (usually "red" and "white" though at my kids' school they used the names of mountains in our prefecture) and they run relay races, have tug-of-war battles, or play a game that involves throwing red bean bags into baskets. For some reason, these sporting events feature strings with flags from various countries hanging from them, as in the image below, and children will compete to see how many countries they can name.

Fall is the season for eating, and School Sports Day.

Fantastic 2013 Anime Calendars In Stock Today

As you know, J-List sells a ton of amazing calendars from Japan, which are great to have on your wall all year long. We got a ton of calendars in stock today, including the hugely popular Sword Art Online calendars and A Certain Magical Index, cute animal calendars like Japanese cats, dogs and other animals, plus gorgeous photo calendars like Famous Castles of Japan (printed on high quality film, not paper). Click to see all 2013 calendars, ranked by popularity!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Chanto: Doing What's Expected of You in Japan

I like to look at ways we can understand Japan through its language. Here in Japan, there's often "one" correct way to do things, and this is summed up with the words chanto ("properly") and chanto shita ("proper"), which are used to grant a higher status to "the way things should be done." My first encounter with this concept was soon after I'd arrived in Japan and set up my apartment with a TV, kotatsu heater table and rice cooker, when the mother of one of my students asked me, "Peter-san wa mainichi gohan, chanto taiteru no?" ("Are you cooking rice every day, properly?"), the implication being that to cook nutritious meals with properly steamed rice was good, but, say, eating instant ramen every day would be bad. You hear these words in phrases like chanto benkyo suru (to study [as you should]) or shushoku shite chanto shita shakai-jin ni naru (to get a full-time job and become a proper member of society), and so on. Almost without fail, those who don't do what's expected of them in Japan -- young people who drop out of school and pursue a music career, NEETs or couples who live together without getting married, even crazy gaijin like me who quit their English teaching jobs to start companies selling Pokemon bento boxes and ridiculously cute cat figures for your smartphone to people around the world -- are seen in a negative light by society (although sometimes we don't care).

You can pick up a lot of information from a word of Japanese.

The Best Gyoza in Japan

Over the weekend Mrs. J-List and I took a drive up to Nikko for a relaxing dip in an onsen. Nikko is one of two really special places in the Kanto (Tokyo/Yokohama) region, a collection of some of the grandest temples and 5-story pagodas in this half of Japan, as well as the grave of Tokugawa Ieyasu and the famous "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" monkeys. On our way back we passed through the city of Utsunomiya, a pleasant regional city that's famous for its gyoza, those delicious Chinese dumplings that are known as "pot stickers" in English for reasons that are beyond me, and we picked up some to take back to the family. Gyoza are dipped in a sauce that contains soy sauce, vinegar and rayu (Japanese chili oil), and I'm one of those people who really obsesses over getting the correct amount of each. The soy sauce provides most of the taste, and yet the tang of the vinegar and the zing of the chili sauce are also very important.

Gyoza from Utsunomiya is the best.

Traditional Products from Japan. And Snakes.

J-List is much more than an anime shop, and we've always worked hard to bring a huge selection of traditional products that capture the spirit of Japan. 2013 is the Year of the Snake according to the Chinese Zodiac, and we've got lots of great snake-themed products from Kyoto for you to browse. This year's traditional photo and art calendars are also beautiful, and we have dozens for you to browse. Click here to see all products on our new Home and Traditional page, in order of awesomeness as chosen by our customers.

Ueto Aya Apologizes for Road Construction

One of the more important aspects of the Japanese is their humility, which is considered an important trait for both individuals and companies to have. Part of this is not being afraid to apologize if you've made a mistake or error or if you've caused meiwaku (inconvenience) to others, and it's a common thing to see everyone from politicians to company presidents lowering their heads in apology when it's called for. Cute actress Aya Ueto was recently hired by NEXCO, the new public company that administers Japan's freeway system (it stands for Nippon Expressway Company, in case you were wondering). Her job is to serve as the company's official spokesperson, and much of what she does is appear in TV commercials alerting Japanese drivers as to what areas of the expressway system will be under construction and when, after which she bows her head deeply, apologizing for the inconvenience to commuters. The idea of having a company apologize for frustration they're causing you (and actually mean it) is quite refreshing and pleasant. Do companies do things like post polite construction signs that bow in apology to you in your country?

Apologizing for inconveniencing others is important in Japan.