Friday, November 09, 2012

Invisible Buddhism in Japan

Soon after arriving in Japan, I walked to a Seven Eleven to buy some onigiri, those triangle-shaped rice balls that are similar to sandwiches in the U.S. While I enjoyed my lunch, I wandered behind the convenience store and was surprised to see a beautiful Buddhist temple nestled in between a beauty shop and CD rental store. People were walking by, not paying the slightest attention to the small temple despite it looking to my outsider's eyes as out-of-place in a modern glass-and-asphalt city as a UFO. That's largely what Buddhism is for many in Japan, it seems to me: it's all around you, like the air, but is generally unseen until your life takes you to some point where it shifts to the foreground, such as the death of a family member. Buddhism has been a part of Japan for almost 1500 years, and you can see its footprint in many interesting areas. When Japanese people clean their homes on December 31st so they start the new year with a clean slate, they're reenacting an ancient Buddhist temple-cleaning ceremony, though no one is consciously aware of it. It's very important to make sure you don't position your bed so that your head is facing north, as this is called kita-makura ("north-pillow") and it's only for the dead at funerals. Even the common Japanese phrase itadakimasu, said before eaten any meal in Japan, is originally a Buddhist term humbly thanking the animal that died so you could eat it.

In neighboring Takasaki there's a 5-storey Buddhis Kannon statue that constantly watches us.

Japanese Love Gaijin Who Love Japan

I write often about how the Japanese love it when foreigners take an interest in their culture, and nothing is more fascinating to them than seeing a gaikokujin who knows more about a certain subject than Japanese do themselves. I recently caught another TV show that introduced these kinds of unique foreigners called "Like! Japan" First there was a traditional enka singing competition in New York followed by a spirited trivia contest because hardcore foreign fans of AKB48, then a father-and-son combo in Italy who love Japanese trains and could name all the train stations on Tokyo's Yamanote loop line. Finally there was a competition between four Americans who could best be described as "Japanese history otakus," possessing a huge amount of knowledge of Oda Nobunaga, one of the most famous names in Japanese history. They were able to answer such tricky questions as, "When Akechi Mitsuhide brought his army into Kyoto to assassinate Nobunaga, what did his say to his troops before fighting?" (The answer was Teki wa Honno-ji ni ari! "The enemy awaits at Honno-ji temple!")

How's your knowledge of Oda Nobunaga history?

We [heart] Fangirls

One of the best things to happen to anime fandom has been the rise of the fangirl. Back in the 80s, when the popularity of anime subculture was growing and fans were beginning to organize themselves around clubs on university campuses -- this was before Akira, also known as "the first anime movie a guy could maybe discuss with a girl" -- anime was a very male-dominated affair. As the medium hit the mainstream in the 90s, several key innovations brought in female fans by the truckload, including "hybrid" series like Sailor Moon, which appealed to fans of all sexes and ages, and Gundam Wing, which compelled female fans to spend hours debating the comparative hotness of Heero x Duo and Trowa x Quatre online. Neon Genesis Evangelion was a groundbreaking series in many ways, not least because of the character Kaworu, who created a renaissance in yaoi doujinshi that brought fangirls in for years. The "BL" revolution of the 90s launched a generation of female fans who are now called fujoshi, a word originally meaning "young miss" but written with characters that mean "rotten girl" (the term is somewhat self-mocking, not unlike our "I Like What I Like so Get Off My Back!" yaoi girl's T-shirt). Of course girls who like the bishounen character design style but not the yaoi content can explore otome games, another popular girl-centric genre that a lot of fans enjoy. Fandom today is an incredibly rich and complex world in which everyone can find something worthwhile no matter what they love, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Fandom is a much better place with fangirls in it, don't you think?

Evangelion is In the Air

Can you feel it in the air? The third Evangelion movie is coming out soon, and there are naturally lots of great Eva products being released in Japan, which we are happy to carry on the site. Whether you're looking for the 2013 Evangelion calendar, great new iPhone case and officially licensed character cups, our Eva + Pikachu parody T-shirt or Calbee Eva potato chips with a trading card inside, you should browse the site and now. See the top Evangelion products, as ranked by our customers.

Remember, Pocky Day is Almost Here!

This Sunday, November 11, is a special day for Pocky fans. It's been designated by the Ezaki Glico company as Pocky Day, since 11/11 looks like four Pocky sticks lined up, ready to be eaten. To help celebrate all Japanese snacks including Pocky and Pretz, Nestle Kit Kat and more, we're having a sale on all food products through Monday, so get your order in now! Click here to see all J-List's Japanese snack sorted by popularity!

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Unique Advertising Methods in Japan

There are many innovative ways Japanese companies advertise to get their messages out to people, like running a short commercial twice, back-to-back, so you can't tune it out easily. Many Japanese advertising campaigns are so interesting they develop a following outside Japan, like the Lotte Fit's gum commercials that will make you get up and dance, or the nosebleed-inducing AKB48 "mouth to mouth" Puccho commercial (YouTube videos embedded in our product pages). The Japanese take public transportation a lot, and innovative advertising in trains is common, like the campaign that transformed the metal bars passengers hold onto while commuting into lightsabers to promote the Star Wars DVD release here, or turning an entire train into a giant advertisement for K-On! One method of advertising I've always liked is pocket tissue, which are printed by banks or ramen shops to promote their wares and handed out on street-corners -- they're useful because you never know when you'll need some tissue. If you've ever been to an anime convention J-List was at we probably handed you some of these pocket tissues, and we also include a pack with orders you make from our website. And if you make an order now, you'll get our cool limited-edition holiday pocket tissue with "Santa Megumi" on it. (Please note that J-List tissues aren't included in orders that would be damaged by them during shipping, like thin books or doujinshi, and are subject to availability).

Pocket tissues are a popular way to advertise.

University Crisis in Japan

In many ways it's been a blessing for Japan to have very little in the way of natural resources compared to, say, Saudi Arabia, which has forced the country to invest heavily in its own citizens through education. In the decades after World War II, Japan has built an excellent educational system based on competition: in order to get into a good university, students had to work hard and learn to apply themselves from an early age, which has yielded many benefits. As Japan's population falls, however, the country faces a new crisis, with the prospect that one day, any student who wants to attend a famous university can just walk right in. without studying. In order to maintain Japan's academic standards, Japan's Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology -- yes, that's really her title -- has surprised everyone by refusing to approve three new universities that had applied for official accreditation, a decision which I frankly applaud. I've written before of the incredible foolishness of creating new universities in a country where elementary schools are being designed to be "barrier free" so they can easily be repurposed as community centers for the elderly when they're no longer needed for children. While it's inconvenient for the staff involved with these new universities, Japan needs to start making hard decisions about its future going forward.

The coming "famine" of students will cause problems for Japan's universities.

J-List 1,000,000th Order!

J-List has been bringing you interesting and random products from Japan since 1996, selling everything from our famous "Looking for a Japanese Girlfriend" kanji T-shirts to Hello Kitty "shoulder massagers" and more. Today today we reached a pretty awesome milestone: our 1,000,000th order. The order was by a customer in Reno, Nevada, for some awesome Megami Magazine issues, and we gave him a gift certificate to thank him. We'd like to say thanks to our amazing customers, and here's to another million orders!

Stylized Language Used in Anime

It's got to be a challenge for anime creators to come up with fresh and interesting characters for fans to enjoy, but fortunately they're quite good at inventing new variations on facial features, hair ornaments and endearing personality quirks to make their characters unique. The popular new anime Chunibyo demo Koi ga Shitai ("Regardless of My Adolescent Delusions of Grandeur, I Still Want a Date") is the story of Yuuta, a Japanese high school student who spent his junior high school years pretending to be a magic-using video game character but who now wants to lead a normal naturally he's surrounded by cute moe girls who won't let him. Kyoto Animation has come up with some great characters, including the eye patch-wearing Rikka who does that cute protective thing with her arms whenever Yuuta bops her on the head, and Shinka, the cutest girl in class, who also spent her early years engaging in childish fantasies that she now wants to erase. My favorite of the batch is definitely Sanae, the clumsy girl who uses her twintails as weapons to fight with. As is often the case in anime, Sanae speaks in a highly stylized way, essentially putting desu on the ends of all sentences that don't need them. The end result is cute, although no one in the history of the country ever spoke this way. Just as it's not a good idea for Japanese learners of English to say, pattern their speech after the fictional character of Yoda, it's important for anyone studying Japanese to avoid trying to learn too much from anime.

Sanae speaks a fictional dialect of Japanese.

Monday, November 05, 2012

The American Election, As Seen From Japan

Well, the U.S. election is almost upon us, and if you're sick of being bombarded with political messages and 24-hour news coverage, the good news is that very soon we'll all be at the farthest point from the next election possible. The election is being covered on the Japanese news, with correspondents in the U.S. reporting on the campaigning. Japan has a British-style Parliamentary legislature with a Prime Minister elected by the ruling party or coalition of parties, and the system in the U.S. is quite confusing to people here, so commentators are careful to explain the uniqueness of the U.S. electoral system, especially the Electoral College. Thanks to the vote-by-mail system, I was able to cast my ballot even though I'm on the other side of the world. Incidentally, we've got a great English-translated visual novel called My Girlfriend is the President about a normal Japanese boy who wakes up one day to find that his girlfriend has somehow become President of Nippon (naturally, aliens are involved). If you'd like to pick up this great eroge we're having a $10 off sale through Wednesday. We wish you many happy elections!

This image has me imagining a "moe" version of Mitt Romney, ugh.

International Marriage as Seen from Japan

Kokusai kekkon, or international marriage, is a popular way for Japanese to find a partner who can provide something that other Japanese are unable to, and more and more Japanese of both sexes are open to the idea of marrying someone from another country. The other day I caught an interesting TV show called Sekai Banzuke: World Ranking that took on the topic of international marriage, inviting famous gaijin "talents" (Japanese-bilingual foreigners who work as commentators or commedians in Japan) who have Japanese husbands and wives to hear their thoughts on the subject. The discussion was quite spirited as foreigners from the U.S., Britain, France, India, Brazil, Finland, South Korea and Hong Kong told of the various trials they faced getting used to living with a foreign spouse. These challenges included lifestyle differences (the guest from India said his wife got tired of him asking to eat curry three times a day, every day) as well as language (the Harvard-educated American "talent" Pakkun annoys his wife by correcting her Japanese in front of others). The show also covered one of the most famous international marriage of the 20th Century, that of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, which is a rarity as Yoko is oddly unpopular in Japan and almost never discussed in the media.

International marriage and Japan.

Star Wars + Disney Thoughts

While Japan has been a huge influence in my life from a young age, the other great inspiration for me has always been Star Wars, as the 400+ Star Wars figures displayed in my office can attest. I was therefore quite interested to read the news that Disney was buying the rights to the Star Wars franchise, and spent a few hours chuckling at entertainment blogs as they tried to come up with variations on "When You Wish Upon a Death Star" puns. I enjoyed seeing the range of reactions by fans on the J-List Facebook Page, some of which were negative ("I'm surprised my childhood was only worth 4 billion dollars") while others were hopeful ("it can't get any worse, I think it will get better"). In some ways it seemed like we were "kids" being told by our parents of a divorce and remarriage to a new parent, and some fans seemed to really be in shock about the news. Personally, I'm upbeat about the ownership change, since Disney and Star Wars have been joined at the hip ever since Star Tours opened in 1987, and the fit seems to work pretty well. (The marriage of Star Wars and Japan isn't too bad either.) My main passion is for the really excellent Star Wars games like the Battlefront series, and I'll keep my fingers crossed for some good news in this area in the future.

What are your thoughts on the Disney + Lucasfilm marriage?

(Mostly) All-Ages Manga @ J-List

J-List sells tons of great manga from Japan, which are perfect for fans and collectors and anyone wanting to teach themselves Japanese using what is pretty much the most enjoyable method available. We carry all the most popular comics, including rare books like the limited edition of the final volume of Evangelion. Browse our all-ages and general manga volumes here.

Remember J-List's Big Chocolate & Snack Sale

Remember: J-List is having a great limited sale on all chocolate and other snack items from Japan, to celebrate Pocky Day (November 11), making this a great time to pick up Japanese Pocky or Kit Kats or bizarre gum or Kracie "DIY" snacks. The sale will run through November 11, which has been designated as "Pocky Day," since 11/11 looks like four Pocky sticks lined up next to each other. Click here to see all J-List's Japanese snack sorted by popularity!