Friday, November 16, 2012

I [heart] Izakayas

I'm rushing this update out a bit today, since the J-List crew is going out to an izakaya restaurant for the official "sayonara party" of one of our employees, and a "welcome party" for a new one. For two and a half years our employee Ai has worked to bring interesting bento boxes and traditional Japanese products to the J-List site. Now she's leaving to start a family with her husband, so we're throwing her a thank-you party complete with a bouquet of flowers we'll be presenting to her, which is something the Japanese like to do at formal events like this. I like getting together with the other J-List staff over beers and sashimi, although we don't get to do it that often in part due to the popularity of J-List -- processing 400+ orders a day kind of eats up our free time. In place of Ai-san we've got the capable new Mai, who will be bringing lots of fun new bento and traditional products in the future!

Drinking at an izakaya, then karaoke.

Some Examples of "Vagueness" in Japan

One famous aspect of the Japanese language is its vagueness and subtlety of meaning. For example, passive speech is used much more in Japanese than in English, e.g. "it has been decided" rather than "my boss Mr. Yamada decided it," and important information is often communicated through the choice of verb used. Information is often left off of sentences entirely when the meaning is understood by both parties, which can be a challenge for gaijin who wonder why they haven't heard a sentence subject mentioned in the past five minutes. The other day I received a question through J-List's Facebook page from a customer asking when the Poddities phone strap adapters for the iPhone 5 would come in. I asked J-List's Tenga-and-iPhone-gadget guru Tomo about this, but instead of specifically naming the product, I used the word are (ah-rey), which literally means "what one over there, away from both of us" but which also acts as a generic stand-in for any noun. He figured out what I meant and told me they'd be coming in this week, and we talked a bit about how cool they were, meticulously engineered adapters that allow you to securely attach Japanese phone straps or carabiner clips to an iPhone 5. Then he said, "Wait, just to make sure I'm not misunderstanding, you were asking about the Poddities adapters for iPhone, right?" Since neither of us had specifically stated the product's name we hadn't been 100% sure we were on the same page.

Speaking of vague relationships... (Takasaki-sensei and Izumi-sensei)

Winter Foods in Japan

One topic I cover a lot is how Japan is a very "seasonal" place, with distinct customs and foods for each time of year. With winter coming, I'm ready to enjoy some great Japanese winter dishes, preferably with my legs inside the kotatsu to keep me warm. One popular category of dishes is called nabemono, literally "food cooked in a large central pot" that the whole family can eat out of, and some popular versions include ishikari nabe (a miso-based soup with salmon added) and chanko nabe (meat, fish and vegetables cooked together, so hearty that this is what sumo wrestlers eat to bulk up). I'm a big fan of the Japanese dish known as oden (pronounced oh-DEN, not like the Norse god), a hodge-podge of slowly-stewed daikon radishes, boiled eggs, tofu, chikuwa and octopus tentacles, this being Japan and all. (My mother-in-law makes the best oden in the world, and I married my wife in part because of that, figuring that the daughter of such a woman would be a worthwhile choice later on down the road.) But my favoritest winter food ever would have to be sukiyaki, the classic stew consisting of thinly sliced meat, tofu and vegetables cooked in a shallow pot. If you're interested in making some of these delicious dishes, we've got some nice new English-language Japanese cookbooks posted for you.

Sukiyaki (above) and oden (below) are great in winter.

1.8 Million Pocky Tweets!

Congratulations to the Ezaki Glico company! November 11 has been designated as "Pocky and Pretz Day" because 11/11 looks like four Pocky or Pretz sticks lined up waiting to be eaten, and last Sunday the company enjoyed a record 1.8 million tweets about its brand here in Japan. This is a world record, and has earned Pocky a place in the Guinness Book. Let's celebrate by eating more Pocky and Pretz!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

New Japanese Elections Coming -- Kill Me Please

The election in the U.S. is finally over, and I'm sure everyone is happy to have it behind them. Unfortunately the election cycle is just about to begin for people in Japan, as Prime Minister Noda has indicated he will dissolve the Diet this year. The main question in the election will be, will the currently ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) maintain the control of the government it won in 2009, or will the pro-business, more conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which ruled the country for most of the postwar period, return to power. Things aren't looking too good for the DPJ, which made extensive promises to its supporters in its "manifesto" to get elected, most of which had to be discarded as "difficult to implement" after they got into power. The party has proven rather inept at diplomacy, which has caused strain with the U.S. over Okinawa, and it's widely perceived that the problems with China and Korea have been caused in part by the weakness of the DPJ's leadership. The wild card in the election might be Shintaro "The Only Japanese Politician Whose Name You Probably Know" Ishihara, the former Tokyo governor and manga-hater. He recently created his own national political party, the Sunrise Party, and is in negotiations to try to join forces with several other small political parties.

This is a moe poster remining voers to vote in the Fukushima regional elections

Bacon-Pan from Japan

The Japanese are ahead of the U.S. in several key areas, including the availability of square watermelons and taxis with doors that open automatically for you. They have toilets that play music, in case you're like Japanese women who get nervous at the thought of someone listening to you pee, then wash your butt for you when you're done. They have vending machines that will sell you a hot can of coffee or even creamed corn soup, very nice to warm yourself with while waiting for the train on a cold train platform in winter, and you can purchase train tickets or food at convenience stores by tapping your cell phone to a computerized plate, no money required. Despite being a rice-eating nation, Japan has some pretty interesting bread, like melon-pan, round sweetened bread that looks sort of like a melon, curry-pan, delicious fried bread with spicy curry inside, and shima-pan, striped bread baked in the shape of...okay, I'm just kidding about that last one. The other day I went to my local bakery and saw the greatest achievement of bead in the history of mankind: butter bacon-pan, delicious butter rolls with bacon baked right inside. I wish I were eating some right now.

I think bacon-pan might be the best thing ever.

Archaic Kana in Evangelion

All languages change and evolve over time, and Japanese is certainly no different. There was no written language in Japan until kanji was introduced along with Buddhism and Confucianism around the 5th century. At first Chinese kanji were used directly, with Japanese grammar and character pronunciations more or less laid on top (a system known as kanbun), and this was replaced by a system of assigning sounds to characters arbitrarily (the man'yo-gana), which grew into the hiragana and katakana writing systems in use today. But the Japanese language has continued to change even in recent years. For example, the current practice of writing Japanese horizontally from left-to-right was only standardized after World War II, and if you look at the "retro" design on the Sakuma Drops candies, you might be able to tell that the writing is "backwards" compared with how the language is written today. There are several hiragana and katakana characters that were commonly used a century ago but which have disappeared from use today...although Hideki Anno goes out of his way to design all written text in Evangelion to use these strange, archaic characters as much as possible.

Evangelion is filled with bizarre, archaic writing just to be different.

Thinking about Christmas at J-List

We're getting into Christmas mode around here, adding tons of extra products to the site that would be perfect for that special Japanophile on your list this year. Between our popular Fuku-bukuro grab bags, which are flying off the virtual shelves right now, and our always popular J-List Gift Certificates, we have more than 5000 awesome products from Japan for consideration. How can we help you today?

Remember, Shuffle! is Now Open for Preorders

Remember our good news, about the impending release of Shuffle!, one of the most famous and awesome visual novels to be translated into English. The upcoming shrinkwrapped package version will be great for fans and collectors, 100% uncensored and DRM free, and it will be shipping soon. Did you get your preorder in yet?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Fire-Prone Japan

Clang clang! Clang clang! Right outside my window right there's a fire truck driving by slowly, ringing a bell and playing a recorded voice: "This is the community volunteer firefighting brigade. Please remember to extinguish all flames before going to sleep tonight." Japan lacks American-style central heating in its homes, and most Japanese use kerosene heaters to heat individual rooms (though those kotatsu heater tables are popular as well). With so many space heaters in use, it's not uncommon for fires to occur, and every couple weeks there's another sad report of a house fire somewhere in the country. Fire has long been the bane of Japan, a country with a high population living in homes of wood and paper, and firefighting is so important that there's an awesome tradition of ukiyoe art featuring traditional firemen of Japan dating back to the Edo Period. Over the past few years, Japan has -- finally, from my American-centric point of view -- gotten more serious some of the public safety concepts that we take for granted, and now requires that smoke detectors be installed in all new homes.

The Edo Version of the FDNY, Circa 1650.

"Half" Japanese Girls: You Can (Not) Resist

The third Evangelion movie is coming in a week, so my son and I re-watched the second film to get into the mood. The two main heroines of the second Eva movie are Asuka Shikinami (née Souryu) Langley and Mari Makinami Illustrious, two bad-ass characters who share a common defining trait: they're both haafu, half Japanese and a quarter each of German and American (in the case of Asuka) and half British (for Mari). The Japanese have a long-standing fascination with haafu, considering them to in many ways to be the perfect blending of hybrid features, and many popular fictional characters feature mixed ancestry to make them more appealing, from Lupin III to Solid Snake to L from Death Note. While Japanese might be whiny and weak like Shinji and true foreigners potentially scary and unstable (remember the Brit who decided to go for a swim in the Imperial Moat in Tokyo in the nude?), characters who are haafu combine the best of both worlds. While the belief that half-Japanese are automatically more talented or assertive than full-blooded Japanese is a myth, it isn't always. A couple years ago my daughter went to Kamakura with her school and some foreign tourists came over to talk to the students. Every student froze sold, despite the fact that they'd studied three years of English by then, and it was up to my daughter to interpret for everyone.

Asuka and Mari are bad-ass haafu characters.

Things I've Learned about the Japanese: Part 16

I've learned some things about the Japanese people during my time here, which I thought I'd share with you. First, they really, really love to eat goma (sesame seeds), and healthy goma flavored foods are everywhere here, from salad dressing to the sesame seed flavored snacks J-List sells. Japanese people tend to be very humble, and will often vehemently deny any compliment you give them, no matter how true it is. The Japanese learned the gesture of "flipping the bird" relatively recently, and it's common for people here to point out locations to you on a map using their middle finger, a gesture which would be interpreted as rude by Americans if we thought they were doing it on purpose (they're not). Japanese assume every Westerner they meet speaks English, and is very outgoing and genki, saying "Oh my God!" or "Unbelievable!" several times per day. They also assume every English speaker knows every word ever coined, and when I go to the doctor he's visibly disappointed when I'm unfamiliar with the difficult medical terms he's trying to use.

Japanese expect gaijin to know every English word.

Posted for Preorder: Shuffle!

There's lot of good news in the air for fans of English-translated dating-sim games and eroge. Not only is the third and final Moero Downhill Night driving game series coming out very soon, but we're posting one of the most awesome English-translated visual novels ever, Shuffle! It's the story of a lucky guy who finds himself caught between two cute girls not of this world, and one of the most famous games ever translated into English. The upcoming shrinkwrapped package version will be great for fans and collectors, 100% uncensored and DRM free. So preorder it now!