Friday, November 30, 2012

The Spectre of Prime Minister Ishihara?

Last time I gave a simple overview of Japan's political scene as the country prepares for a general election on December 16. While the two major political parties in Japan -- the currently ruling Democratic Party of Japan and their main opposition, the Liberal Democratic Party -- are more or less known quantities, there's a "third force" in the Japanese political scene this time around. It's the Japan Restoration Party, formed by Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto and his new partner, former Tokyo governor Shintaro "Bane of Otaku" Ishihara. Hashimoto is a lawyer who was a regular fixture on variety shows (go figure), but he quit the entertainment world to become governor of Osaka Prefecture, and later major of the city. Ishihara, who wrote "The Japan That Can Say No" back in the 80s, managed to get Tokyo operating efficiently despite his penchant for making inflammatory statements about women and foreigners. (The riots in China are absolutely attributable to his attempts to make the Senkaku islands part of Tokyo, which forced the national government to step in instead.) The Japan Restoration Party says it will increase defense spending, amend the Japanese Constitution to give its military a proper legal status, and restore Japan's economic influence in the world. Of course, it doesn't matter which party is able to form a majority and choose Japan's next Prime Minister. The minute someone takes the position of leader of Japan, everyone from the press to every other politician will start criticizing and tearing down the new PM until he steps down a year or so later in shame.

Otakus react to Mr. Ishihara's new national party.

Strange English in Japanese

Part of learning a foreign language involves internalizing its phonetic system, and that can take time, especially when the language is as unique as Japanese is -- I was a fan of the Dirty Pair 80s anime for years before I realized the theme song ("Russian Roulette") contained English words. Complex English sounds like "th" get reduced since they don't exist in Japanese, which is where the anime Psycho-Pass gets it's name from. Currently Japan is experiencing a boom in "anti-aging" products which promise to reverse the effects time has on our bodies, but every time I hear this term I cringe, since "anti" is pronounced "anchi" for phonetic reasons. (Ditto for the "Anti-Spiral" aliens in Gurren Lagann.) Other words that are pronounced in slightly odd ways are "energy" (often said with a hard "g" sound), "coffee" (it sounds like koh-hii), "tick tock" (it comes out sounding like chiku-taku) and "city" (sadly, the si sound is always rendered as shi, creating a rather impolite adjective). The Japanese also pronounce UFO, VIP and airlines JAL and ANA as normal words, e.g. "you-foh," "vipp," "jal" and so on, which really takes time getting used to.

Some English words used in Japanese feel strange.

J-List EMS and T-Shirt Sale

Remember, J-List is having two great sales you'll want to get in on. First, we're giving a whopping $15 or $40 back when you order items from Japan and choose EMS shipping, which is fully insured and trackable and will arrive at your house in about 4 days. Order $100 or more to get $15 back as a store credit, or $200 or more to get $40 back. Also: we have a special offer on J-List's world-famous anime and kanji T-shirts. Through the end of December, buy any 2 J-List shirts shipping from San Diego and get a free shirt chosen randomly by us. Click to see all our shirts now!

Japan and Copyright

One of the more interesting aspects of Japan is its free-spirited culture of doujinshi, which are comics and related works created by talented amateur artists that (usually) make use of copyrighted characters from series like Evangelion or Sword Art Online. While copyright holders are willing to turn a blind eye to doujin works being made of their properties, especially since virtually every Japanese artist from Tony Taka to Rumiko Takahashi got their start at the Comic Market, in other areas they can be surprisingly inflexible. Selling thousands of copies of self-published comics exploring the relationship between Mari and Asuka is just fine, but if I wanted to publish pictures of random cosplayers to my website I'm supposed to obtain written permission from the models plus whoever made the costumes, as well as the copyright holder of the anime properties in question, all of whom have the right to refuse. Permission is also needed for figure sculpting, even amateur garage kits. Japan has a "portrait right" law that says written permission must be obtained by anyone appearing in photos published or tweeted, and then there's the small matter of downloading files being made punishable by a theoretical 2 year sentence, which has many fans here nervous. When you go see a movie in Japan, you're shown a somewhat amusing anti-piracy advertisement called "No More Movie Thief" in which a man wearing a giant video camera on his head named Camera Man is illegally filming a movie inside a theatre, only to have his arch-nemesis Patlight Man show up and arrest him. Naturally these ridiculous characters have become a BL meme on Pixiv.

Japan tries "too hard" to protect some rights.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

No Korean Performers Invited to Kouhaku

A 2012 winds down, everyone in Japan is getting ready for the entertainment event of the year, the Kohaku Uta Gassen (Red and White Year-End Song Festival), when the top bands that had been active in Japan over the year will have a great "song battle" on December 31st. But this year no bands from South Korea have been invited to the event, which has raised the ire of the Korean government, who accused Japan's national broadcaster NHK of slighting them because of the Dokdo/Takeshima island dispute, which flared up when South Korean President Lee visited the islands and made some unkind comments about Japan's Emperor. NHK denies any politics are at play, pointing out that there were no breakout hits by Korean artists in the Japanese music market this year, and even the legendary Gangnam Style failed to gain much traction in Japan, in part because it didn't live up to the high aesthetic quality most K-POP fans here prefer. So if you were holding your breath waiting to see AKB48 and PSY together on stage in the hallowed NHK hall, unfortunately it looks like it won't be happening. I certainly hope 2013 is a warmer year for Japanese-Korean relations than this year has been.

No awesome sing-song Korean accents to be heard at this year's Kouhaku? Sad panda!

Japanese vs Western Style in Japan

Japan is a unique country in the way that traditional architecture, clothing and other elements of daily life exist side-by-side with their Western equivalents, and these differences are baked right into the language. The most common word for "clothing" in Japanese is yohfuku, which literally means "Western clothing" like shirts and slacks and business suits, while traditional Japanese clothing like kimono and yukata are covered under the term wafuku ("Japanese clothing"), a totally different category altogether. This pattern of linguistic separation of Western vs. Japanese shows in many other areas, such as yohshiki for Western-style toilets compared with washiki or Japanese-style squatting toilets, and rooms, with yohshitsu being the term for a Western-style room with chairs and a sofa, and washitsu used for a Japanese style tatami room. One of my favorite concepts in modern Japan is called wayoh-setchu which means "combining of both Japanese and Western themes into something new and interesting." Some examples of this are buildings dating from the Meiji and early Showa Periods like the Sapporo Clock Tower which have design elements from both Europe and Japan, or a traditional bento meal eaten on New Year's Day called osechi that's usually made with Japanese ingredients, though it's sometimes prepared with Western foods added into the mix, making something really unique and new.

Western vs. Japanese style rooms in Japan.

The Yuru-Chara Mascots of Japanese Politics

The Japanese election is off to a running start, and it's promising to be as urusai (noisy) as ever, with politicians driving around in loudspeaker cars asking you in a booming voices to support them in the polls when you're trying to sleep late. Although there are a total of 15 registered political parties holding seats in Japan's legislature -- some of the more interesting ones include the People's Life First party, which exists to whine about any tax increase for any reason, the centrist Your Party (that's its official name, Your Party), and a very focused group called the Anti-TPP, Anti-Nuclear, Consumption Tax Hike Freeze Realization Party -- there are only two political groups that really matter. First is the Democratic Party of Japan, in power since 2008, which aims to support average Japanese families and employees of companies but ends up getting side-tracked with impossible-to-implement policies at every turn. Then there's the pro-business Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which ruled Japan almost continuously since 1955 and is favored to win the upcoming election. Their plan for a return to power calls for a massive stimulus budget, the trademark of that party -- Japan spent the equivalent of a Panama Canal on public works per year over the last decade -- but they're going even further, bringing kawaii culture into politics. The LDP has announced plans to create a yuru-chara mascot, a cute character in a giant suit similar to the characters that represent Japan's prefectures, like Barii-san from Nagoya (below, on the right) or our own Gunma-chan (on the left). Does anyone else think creating a cute character as a way of influencing national elections is really bizarre?

Do yuru-chara mascot characters belong in politics? I'm thinking, "Hell no!"

New J-List December Sales Events

We've got two sales to tell you about, which will give you more great excuses to surf the site and put in another order or two. First, we're giving a whopping $15 or $40 back when you order items from Japan and choose EMS shipping, which is fully insured and trackable and will arrive at your house in about 4 days. Order $100 or more to get $15 back as a store credit, or $200 or more to get $40 back. Also: we have a special offer on J-List's world-famous anime and kanji T-shirts. Through the end of December, buy any 2 J-List shirts shipping from San Diego and get a free shirt chosen randomly by us. Click to see all our shirts now!
Currently our customers are making tons of orders, buying fun products from Japan for the special people on their list this year. While we know our customers can't get enough of our Anime + Toy, Bento + Culture and ecchi "Fuku-bukuro" grab bags, it's often fun to see what other random items are popular. This year Japanese snacks have been a hit, especially the wacky DIY snacks by Kracie, and of course our popular 2013 calendars from Japan. We were surprised to see a rush on our Doki Doki Toilet Poop Super Ball, a Japanese-style toilet (see above) with a cute smiling poop in it that brings you good luck. Click to see all J-List products sorted by sales, or browse the items our customers are adding to their wishlists.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Visual Novels and Anime

Since 1996 J-List has been working to create a market for English-translated visual novels from Japan, also called eroge, "gal" games, H-games and, in the case of romantic games with female main characters, otome games. Visual novels are a highly developed art form in Japan, with stories of varying complexity in which you must find a way to woo female (or male) characters and get them to fall in love with you, though there's often a lot more going on than that, depending on the game. These games occupy a strong place in popular culture here, and many have spawned sprawling commercial empires like the Fate/stay night franchise. It's a common meme in some anime series, like FLCL, Excel Saga, Welcome to the NHK, Genshiken and of course The World God Only Knows, to de-construct the themes in visual novels in playful ways. In the popular anime Chuunibyo demo Koi ga Shitai, the attractive Nibutani suddenly approaches the main character to ask if she can come over to his house on Sunday. Later he's worried: "I haven't raised my 'affinity parameters' with her, and there hasn't been a 'special romantic event' between us either. Situations like this usually lead to a 'bad end' in love-simulation games."

I like series that de-construct visual novel themes.

Payday in Japan

Today is the best day of the month for the J-List staff, payday, so I thought I'd write a bit about how payment of salaries and money works in Japan. While most people in the U.S. probably get paid twice a month, receiving a paycheck every second Friday, in Japan payday is always once per month and always on the 25th, or the next business day in cases like today. Since virtually everyone in the country gets paid on the same day, making a trip to Akihabara the weekend after payday is great fun, as everyone has money to buy cool figures and other otaku-related products. The word "paycheck" has no meaning in Japan since there is nothing resembling a personal or company check for issuing payments. Up until the last decade or so, it was common to receive your monthly salary in cash in the form of crisp 10,000 yen notes in a brown envelope, which was really strange to me at first, since Americans rarely touch large amounts of cash like that. Now, of course, nearly all companies have switched to direct deposit of funds to our employee's bank accounts.

I was shocked to receive my monthly salary in cash when I first arrived in Japan.

Future Technology and Anime

One thing I like about animation is that it can show anything, express any idea, and even let us see what the future might be like. For example, we have yet to make use of robots in our daily lives in part because it's difficult for us to imagine a form that would make them truly useful, but in the anime Code Geass Guilty Crown there's a great kind of personal robot called a Fyu-Neru that has four spider-like legs with wheels on the ends, enabling it to roll and climb anywhere as it accesses and displays information humans need. The currently-running anime ROBOTICS;NOTES takes iPad-style tablet computing into the future, showing us a world in which an incredible range of gaming and information retrieval can be done with touch interfaces. Another good anime series that lets us see the possible future of technology is Psycho-Pass, written by Madoka Magica and Song of Saya creator Urobuchi Gen, which shows us a world in which police carry "smart" weapons that only fire when held by the designated owner, and only when pointed at criminals (or potential criminals). They also have floating digital assistants that wake you up and help you get dressed then calculate your calorie allowance for the day.

Technology from the future in Psycho-Pass.

Last Reminder of J-List's Sale

Remember: our big Pre-Christmas Sale sale is going on through the end of Monday, allowing you to get $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.) There's never been a better time to load up on awesome stuff from Japan, but you need to hurry!
Also remember that every day 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!