Friday, November 23, 2012

How Japanese Names Work

Names are important things no matter what country you're in, though in Japan they work a little differently than what you may be used to. Japanese always have two names, a family name (Tanaka, Yamada) and a given name (Taro, Hanako), and since the name order is always reversed from Western name style, terms like "first name" and "last name" become pretty useless. Japanese never have middle names or sons named after their fathers, and when I was a teacher my students would ask me what my middle name was and show amazement that my father was named Peter Payne, just like me. It's quite rare for women to keep their maiden names after they get married, unless they marry foreigners (my wife kept hers); something that happens more often is, a man comes to live with his wife and her family and legally takes her family name. (My father-in-law did this when he married my wife's mother.) One thing I've observed about the Japanese: as a group, they're not very good at memorizing people's names, and one possible reason why this might be is the large number of non-name labels, e.g. senpai for an upperclassman or senior member of an organization, or sensei for someone in a place of respect like a teacher, a lawyer or a certified public accountant (no, I am not kidding about those last two).
When my daughter was very small, I went with her and a J-List employee to my mother's house in San Diego. Naturally my family called my employee by his given name, which was Daisuke, and my daughter pulled me aside and asked, "Why is everyone calling him 'Daisuke'? Didn't they just meet him for the first time? How can they be good friends with him so quickly?" It's just a cultural difference between Japan and the West that given names are only used by family members or close friends, or a couple who has just started dating. In the currently running anime Sakura Sou no Pet na Kanojo, which was supposed to be a "harem" anime with lots of fanservice, through the writers managed to sneak in an interesting character-driven story, Mashiro Shiina is a beautiful girl from England who is so scatterbrained, she can't even put on her own pantsu in the morning, so the male protagonist Sorata has to help her. He calls her by her family name (Shiina) to maintain a polite distance between them, but she yearns for him to call her by her given name of Mashiro.

The pantsu-challenged Mashiro, one of the more interesting boke-chara types to come along.

Gunma, The Least Interesting Prefecture

J-List is located in Gunma Prefecture in the exact center of Japan, about 100 km northwest of Tokyo. While there's a lot to like about our home -- good onsen hot springs, lots of skiing nearby, plenty of parks making it a good place to raise kids, plus mountains if you're into "Initial D" style driving -- for some reason our prefecture suffers from an image problem. Actually, this year Gunma was ranked dead last in the annual survey of the most "interesting" prefectures, and for a while there was a meme on Japan's 2ch BBS featuring pictures of the most desolate parts of inner Africa and photoshopping our prefecture's name over them. Unlike prefectures like Saitama or Chiba which border bustling Tokyo, or truly rural places like Nagano or Aomori that have plenty of history and charm, Gunma is kind of stuck in the middle. Still, I like my adopted home quite a lot, and whenever I come back after a day of walking around the cramped concrete jungle that is Tokyo, I'm always happy to be home.

"If there's a bright center to Japan, Gunma is the prefecture that it's farthest from."

J-LIST PRE-CHRISTMAS SALE IS ON NOW (Through the end of Monday)

It's that time of year again, when everyone starts seriously thinking about Holiday shopping. J-List is ready to serve you, with a huge lineup of rare and wonderful products from Japan that would be great under the tree this year. We're starting our Black Friday/Cyber Monday sale early to give you more days for your order to arrive. From today through the end of Monday, U.S. time, we'll give you $5, $20 or $40 back when you order $50, $150 or $250, making this the perfect time to get your holiday orders in to us. (EMS shipping is highly recommended to receive your orders in time for Christmas.) Thanks for helping us add a slice of Japan to your holidays!
We've got another fun announcement, too: every day from today through December 24th, we'll give away one $50 gift certificate per day to a random customer, which will be given out by "Santa Megumi" (above) via email to the lucky winners on Christmas. Everyone who makes an order is automatically entered for that day, so if you make multiple orders you have an even better chance to win. Let's shopping at J-List!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A "Sense" For Foreign Languages

I've written before about how effectively studying a language requires certain things. A real desire to learn is important, as is being inventive enough to figure out how your own brain learns best, since every brain is different. It's also useful to have what the Japanese called kan (勘、pronounced "kahn," like this), a word which means perception or intuition and the ability to figure out meaning in abstract situations. If you're kan ga ii then you're good at making sense of something from very little information, but someone who is kan ga warui is terrible at picking up meaning from a few threads. Because I'm married to a Japanese woman whose English is less than perfect (which is my fault, since we speak Japanese at home), my American family has had to develop these sixth-sense abilities if they want to communicate with her. For example, when my wife added "gross lipstick" to her Christmas list, my sister was able to guess that she probably wanted gloss lipstick instead, and get some for her, and when my wife sends tells my family in San Diego what time my "fright" will arrive at the airport, it's not hard to figure out that she's talking about my flight. Someone who is kan ga ii will probably be able to intune out that a Japanese person asking for "potato" at a fast food restaurants would like French Fries, or that someone who's about to "take a bath" to your house is really going to catch a bus. Of course it works both ways, and my wife often has to guess at what I'm talking about when I screw up my nihongo in front of her.

I'll bet you'll never be able to forget the word kan after this post.

Happy Thanksgiving 2013

Thursday is Thanksgiving, the second most important American holiday, a day for spending time with family and friends and giving thanks for what we have. While I love the holiday as an American, the reality is that it can be difficult to get into the proper Thanksgiving spirit while living in a foreign country. Not only do the Japanese have almost zero awareness of turkey as a food category (though you can find small frozen turkeys at some import supermarkets), but Japanese kitchens almost never have ovens suitable for doing proper baking in. Most of the other famous icons of Turkey Day, such as cranberry sauce or stuffing, are also difficult to find, although after I finish this update I'm going over to Costco and score me a pumpkin pie if they still have them in stock. What most Americans in Japan do on Thanksgiving is to take the path of least resistance and get a bucket of KFC, which is kind of sort of similar to Turkey with all the trimmings. 
Anyway, we'd like to wish everyone in the U.S. a warm and happy holiday tomorrow! And if being around your family becomes too painful, feel free to duck out and come surf the J-List site instead.

Thanksgiving in Japan is a bit different from back home.

"Absolute Zone" Marketing

I write a lot about how the Japanese are innovative when it comes to advertising, coming up with fresh and unique ways of getting their message across to people. There's the "advertising tissue" method, distributing tissues with your company's name displayed on the front like J-List does, and the always-fun company-buys-all-the-advertising-space-inside-a-train method, making it impossible to not be aware of the company's brand while you're commuting home. Now the latest advertising method is here, and it happens to involve one of my favorite Japanese fashions, known as zettai ryoiki or the Absolute Zone, which is what the "sweet three-centimeter space" (to borrow a phrase from the opening of Lucky Star) between the top of a woman's over-knee socks and where her skirt begins. That's a pretty intense patch of skin, and one advertising firm proposes to pay women between $10 and $100 a day to walk around with a company's logo fixed via a special sticker to their "absolute zone" region, which would certainly be a unique way of getting a marketing message across. I could see something like this becoming popular at big events like the Tokyo Motor Show or Comic Market's industry booths. Incidentally, if you like this style of socks we've got some great Absolute Zone socks in stock, plus authentic "socks glue" to hold them up.

I love the new "Absolute Zone" advertising concept.

J-List's Pre-Christmas Starts NOW

It's that time of year again, when everyone starts seriously thinking about Holiday shopping. J-List is ready to serve you, with a huge lineup of rare and wonderful products from Japan that would be great under the tree this year. We're starting our Black Friday/Cyber Monday sale early to give you more days for your order to arrive. From today through the end of Monday, U.S. time, we'll give you $5, $20 or $40 back when you order $50, $150 or $250, making this the perfect time to get your holiday orders in to us. (EMS shipping is highly recommended to receive your orders in time for Christmas.) Thanks for helping us add a slice of Japan to your holidays!
We've got another fun announcement, too: every day from today through December 24th, we'll give away one $50 gift certificate per day to a random customer, which will be given out by "Santa Megumi" (above) via email to the lucky winners on Christmas. Everyone who makes an order is automatically entered for that day, so if you make multiple orders you have an even better chance to win. Let's shopping at J-List!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Staying in Tokyo

Over the weekend I went down to Tokyo to take a tour of the university my son plans on attending, and afterwards my wife and I stayed in the Tokyo Hilton to enjoy a change of scenery. Like the Park Hyatt, made famous by the film Lost in Translation, the Tokyo Hilton is gaishi-kei ("foreign capital," i.e. owned by a foreign company), which made it just a little different from a hotel operated by a Japanese company. My wife was the first to notice the differences when we got to our room, which was designed with Kyoto-esque sliding paper shutters on the windows instead of curtains as you'd expect in a normal hotel. I thought the effect was quite cool, but my wife didn't seem to agree with me. It turns out that 50% or more of the guests in the hotel are foreigners from overseas, and the hotel had tailored its decor to appeal to them more than to Japanese locals, who don't necessarily view their own country in the same kakko ii (cool, good style) light that foreigners do.

The Hilton Tokyo designs its rooms for gaijin.

Third Evangelion Movie Report

This weekend saw the release of the new Evangelion movie "You Can (Not) Redo," which continues the "Rebuild of Evangelion" reboot, and I went to see it yesterday with my son. It was awesome, a very dark movie that really takes the story in interesting new directions, with many twists and turns I never expected. It's 14 years past the events in the last film, and all your favorite characters are back, including Rei Ayanami and the new battle-scarred "Pirate" Asuka, as well as now-grown-up Sakura Suzuhara, the younger sister of Touji, who speaks the sweetest Osaka-ben ever. The film is loaded with visual and story elements Hideki Anno has used in his past Gainax works, and I had a lot of fun picking them out as they danced by on the screen. In fact, while you're waiting for the film to get its inevitable international release, you might hunt down Anno's Gunbuster: Aim for the Top and Nadia of the Mysterious Seas and watch (or re-watch) them, to better enjoy the visual presence of the third Eva film when you see it.

The new Evangelion movie has old friends and new faces.

2013 Japanese Calendars @ J-List

J-List is deep into our 2013 Japanese calendar season, and things are really jumping. We've frankly never had such a great lineup of popular calendars as we have this year, including rare offerings from top artists like Shirow Masamune, Kantoku, Tony Taka and Tinklebell, plus other top offerings like Sword Art Online, Hatsune Miku, Totoro and Ghibli, and of course Evangelion. They're going to start to sell out fast, though: already we tried to add additional copies of several calendars and were told sorry, they were all sold out with our distributors. So get your 2013 calendar order in to us as soon as you can! Click here to see all Japanese calendars sorted by awesomeness.

Drinking in Japan

The J-List staff had fun last Friday, as we said farewell to a departing employee and hello to a new one. There are certain rules to follow when you're drinking with others in Japan. First, you never pour your own drink; instead, others pour for you, and you pour for them, which makes drinking together a social event. Pouring your own drink would be tantamount to denying the spirit of the group, and is only done while drinking alone in a bar in windswept Northern Japan, at least judging from the enka songs I've heard on the subject. In years past there was probably some social pressure for people who didn't want to drink alcohol to do so anyway, but these days it's perfectly acceptable to specify that you're drinking oolong tea instead of beer. In accordance with the Third Law of Language Learning, one's ability to speak Japanese actually rises a bit when imbibing alcohol...though it comes crashing down soon enough. After eating and drinking, the J-List staff went out for some karaoke, which is always a fun way to pass a couple hours.

Drinking in Japan is slightly less awesome than this.