Friday, December 21, 2012

Ninja or Kabuki Stagehand?

It's funny how we're all wired to perceive things a certain way, depending on what culture we come from. When my daughter was younger, we took her to an eye doctor in the U.S. for some tests, and the doctor showed her some pictures and asked her to identify them. She wasn't able to answer properly, not because of some problem with her eyes, but because the pictures -- silhouettes of household objects -- looked strange to her since she'd grown up outside the U.S. When I went to see a kabuki play in Tokyo for the first time, I was confused by the story, and not just because of the archaic Japanese the actors were speaking. As the story progressed, men in black costumes would appear on stage and scurry around, moving props and background objects. To my eyes, they looked like ninjas ready to strike their enemies dead, yet for some reason the characters on stage ignored their presence and went on with the story. It turns out I was looking at kuroko, stage hands who manipulate objects during the performance but who are supposed to be ignored by the audience. These unique "invisible shadows" show up on other performance arts, too, especially bunraku, a play put on using highly detailed dolls that are manipulated by a puppet master who wears dark clothing, making him invisible to the audience.

You or I would see a ninja, but Japanese would see a kuroko stage hand for Kabuki.

Unique Features of the Japanese Language

The Japanese language is very different from any Western language, and just as English speakers need to get used to the concept of genders for nouns in European languages -- can anyone explain why a spoon is male, a fork female and a knife neutral in German? -- students of Japanese will encounter some new ideas. These include sentences in SOV (subject-object-verb) word order, grammatical "particles" that mark different parts of sentences for you, plus the custom of omitting information from sentences when it's clear from context, e.g. saying 行く?iku? for "shall we go to lunch now?" although all you actually said was "go?" Another new concept is the っ sound, aka "small tsu," essentially a brief pause in the middle of some Japanese words similar to the glottal stop you hear in words like mitten, uh-oh, and Hawai'i. This sound is represented in English by double consonants, as seen in Lotte, purveyors of quality caffeine gum and Rikka, the lovable girl from Chuunibyo Demo Koi ga Shitai. Another issue in Japanese is differentiating long and short vowels, something that we don't have in English. When LEGO used the Japanese word for "imagination" (空想) for its experimental crowd-sourced model project, it wisely changed the spelling to Cuusoo. The more common romanization of kuusoh (with two long vowels) might accidentally be reduced to kuso (with two short vowels), which is a Japanese expletive meaning "poop."
(As usual, I always advise that you lean Japanese from books like the Genki series or White Rabbit flash card series, which "force" you to read Japanese in proper hiragana and katakana rather than in the English alphabet. This helps you learn more accurately and reduces any speaking accent later.)

All About Japanese Offices

Before I started J-List in 1996, I had a brief career as a public employee, working in the local City Office as a "Coordinator of Internationalization" providing various services to foreigners in our city, translating documents for them if they couldn't read Japanese, and so on. On my first day of work I was surprised to see that the department I'd been assigned to included about 25 people, all working in a giant open space with desks in rows, and being in a room where so many people had a direct line of sight to me at any moment was an unnerving experience. This kind of office layout is common in Japan -- at one of our book distributors (Tohan), the entire company works in one cavernous space, with hundreds of employees occupying rows of desks, buzzing around the room or talking to clients quietly on the phone, without so much as a cubicle wall to hang a Dilbert strip on. While this is taking the open office concept a bit too far, running my own company in Japan has given me an appreciation for Japanese style workplaces. At J-List the employees work at an "island" of six desks pushed together, with each having a place to store the projects they're working on, photograph products for posting on the site and so on. I honestly believe the lack of walls improves our communication since you can turn to anyone and ask when such-and-such product will be back in stock, and having everyone working alongside each other helps us all stay focused.

Japanese offices are open, without cubicles or walls.

J-List Gift Certificates, The Perfect Otaku Gift

Christmas is almost here, and we hope everything is getting ready to have a really special time with family and friends. If you're still looking for the perfect gift for a Japan-obsessed person on your list, we humbly recommend our J-List Gift Certificates, which let your recipient buy anything from the J-List or JBOX.com websites. Since we create a high quality PDF file and send it to the email address you specify, you've got the option of either sending your gift via email or printing it out and presenting it to them in person. It's the gift they'll remember forever! J-List gift certificates are processed several times per day and we can get one sent to the email address you specify ASAP.

Our Christmas Sales Are Still Going

Remember, J-List is having three great sales right now. 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. Next, we have a special offer on J-List's world-famous anime and kanji T-shirts. Through the end of December, buy any two J-List shirts shipping from San Diego and get a free shirt chosen randomly by us. Finally, everyone who makes an order is entered into a drawing for a $50 gift certificate, one per day, given away by Santa Megumi on Christmas! And if you're ordering products stocked in San Diego, we now offer a UPS Next Day Air option too.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Swastika Shock in Japan

J-List has a popular Twitter feed and Facebook page, and I like to post random slice-of-life thoughts from Japan. When Google Maps for iOS came out a few days ago, I took it for a test-drive to see how good it performed in my semi-rural Japanese city. While the streets and turn-by-turn directions worked fine, the satellite data for my city is particularly bad, looking like it was photographed by the first Sputnik. I tweeted a screenshot showing this, and received several questions about why there was a swastika on my map. This is actually a "manji," a 4500 year old symbol from Sanskrit used in the Hindu and Buddhist religions. In Japan it's used to indicate the location of Buddhist temples on maps and totally unrelated to the Nazi version, which is pointing the other direction. You learn something new every day!
You can even type a swastika as a character with your computer. Turn on Japanese input and type まんじ (manji) and hit the space bar and 卍 will appear. 

The swastika (reversed actually) is closely associated with Buddhist temples.

Macross: Do You Remember the Early 80s?

As a card-carrying fan of oldschool Japanese animation and pop culture, I make it a point to enjoy both cool new series like Sword Art Online and Chuunibyo Demo Koi ga Shitai as well as the classics. 2012 happens to be the 30th anniversary of Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, one of the pivotal shows from the 1980s that's responsible for the industry becoming what it is today, and I decided to re-watch the entire series in Japanese. 1982 was a very different time from 2012, and I found myself noticing lots of differences between modern anime series, starting with the lack of Korean and Chinese staff names shown in the ending credits -- anime today is absolutely a "pan-Asian" industry, but this wasn't true thirty years ago. The language was slightly different back then, too: characters often addressed each other using the word オタク otaku in its original meaning of "you and your family" rather than its current definition, which would be unthinkable today. For maximum irony, I decided to watch it on Blu-ray in full 1080p, and it was fun to identify little pieces of dust as they danced around on the animation cels, though overall the show holds up great considering it was released in the same year as MS-DOS 1.0. Incidentally, if you're a Macross fan, got lots of cool products on the site like the new Macross the First manga reboot plus the upcoming "ultimate" Macross 30th Anniversary PS3 game.

I'm re-watching the original Macross for its 30th anniversary.

Japanese Snacks Shipping from San Diego!

J-List has a conveniently located shipping center in San Diego, California, which is great if you're in a hurry to get anime and kanji T-shirts, San Diego-based Fuku-bukuro grab bags in time for Christmas, you've got some great options. We also stock Japanese snacks in our San Diego office, and we've posted a huge update of delicious Japanese food items you should see. We've got everything from U.S. based Hello Kitty snacks and delicious udon noodles and authentic ramune drinks and more. We even have the only shimapan Pocky you're likely to see this year. Click to see all San Diego-based Japanese snacks and drinks now!

We Love Japanese Toilets

When foreigners visit Japan, they naturally focus on areas of the country that stand out to them as unique, like maid cafes in Akihabara, pachinko parlors, love hotels and of course Japan's high-tech toilets. Most toilets you're likely to encounter in residential homes or hotels here are "washlets," those awesome toilets that wash and dry your butt for you and also have a "bidet" feature, though being male I'm sure I don't know what that is. They were invented in 1980 by the TOTO Corporation -- no relation to Dorothy's little dog, the name is actually short for 東洋陶器 Toyo Toki, meaning Eastern Ceramics -- and were originally developed for use in hospitals before the company decided to try selling them commercially. Japanese toilets increase your comfort by keeping the seat heated to the perfect temperature for you (this is called a "warmlet") then by washing your backside when you're done doing your business. They're popular with Japanese women, who always seem to suffer from chronic constipation, since the stream of water can be a big help. The toilets have other features, too, like cool LED lights for trips to the bathroom at night, hydraulically operated seats that open for you, and white noise generators to mask any sounds you might make while doing your business, which Japanese females hate, dainty feminine things that they are. TOTO and its competitor INAX are trying to build a market for high-tech Japanese toilets outside Asia, but so far it's been slow going, perhaps due to taboos regarding toilets in the West. I imagine most homes in Europe and the U.S. don't have conveniently-located electric sockets right by the toilet, either.

I am a big fan of Japanese "washlets."

Monday, December 17, 2012

Costco Japan Report

Yesterday I took my life into my own hands, daring to go to Costco on a Sunday. I'm a big fan of the company and the way they've brought American-style warehouse shopping to Japan, which has enabled Japanese to experience the joys of imported wine and frozen waffles and Dr. Pepper. A Japanese Costco store is almost exactly the same as the stores back in the U.S., right down to the signs advertising USDA Choice Beef, though they probably have better selections of sake in the liquor aisle than the stores near you. While the company is doing a great job in their Japan stores, there are a few things they might consider changing in the future. They sell giant frozen pizzas here just like back in the States, yet I don't know a single Japanese person who has an oven large enough to cook one; why not sell two smaller pizzas instead? Ditto on the large frozen turkeys they sell: since almost no one in Japan has a proper oven, perhaps Costco should consider an optional cook-it-for-you service like Honey Baked Ham. The company's tiramisu deserts come in a container so large that shocked Japanese describe it as a "bucket," and even my family couldn't hope to finish our giant pumpkin pie, so I brought half in to work to let the J-List staff share. I was happy to find Costco selling frozen burritos, something you don't really miss until you live in a country that doesn't have them. Unfortunately they'd chosen to sell bean burritos, perhaps not knowing that Mexican refried beans are to Japanese as the fermented natto soybeans are to Westerners. (They should go with beef or chicken burritos instead.) 
So if there are any Costco executives reading this, my consulting rates are very affordable, and you can probably pay me in dinner rolls.

The tiramisu from Costco is the stuff of legend in Japan.

On Being a Gaijin in Japan

The word for "foreigner" in Japanese is 外人 gaijin, which actually meals "outside-person" (e.g. outsider), but since this word can have negative connotations, the word 外国人 gaikokujin ("outside-country-person") will always be used on official documents or the TV news. Probably the single biggest difference between Japan and the West is that here, 98% of the county comes from more or less the same genetic stock, which means that foreigners stand out much more than we would in, say, Paris or Budapest. This can sometimes be a challenge, since I often find that I'm the only foreigner present in a place, whether it's working out at the gym or in a crowded hall during a concert. Some foreign friends I've had over the years have been bothered by standing out so much, or at the occasional stares (always by children rather than adults, as this is the most polite country in the world), saying that Japan was like "living in a fishbowl." I just ignore any odd attention I may find myself receiving, perhaps breaking the ice with a polite konnnichiwa.

So, what's it like to be a gaijin in Japan?

Japanese Election 2012 Results

The Japanese election is over, and as expected, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) scored a big win. The LDP ruled Japan almost continuously since 1955 until they were booted out of power by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in 2008. Voters returned the reigns to the old guard for several reasons, including frustration over the rocky economy and unfulfilled promises in the DJP's "Manifesto" plus four years of ineptly handled foreign diplomacy, which caused important international relationships to suffer, including Japan's ties with the U.S. They are also betting that the incoming Prime Minister Abe (ah-bey, not like the American President) will be better able to resist encroachment from China on the Senkaku Islands, a dispute which caused terrible anti-Japan riots this year. There's hope that the business situation will improve for Japanese companies, too. While the DPJ had been positively hostile to business, refusing to listen to advice from the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) or aid important companies like Panasonic, Sony and Sharp, the election of the pro-business LDP has already sent the stock market here soaring.

The Japanese election is over and old guard is back.

J-List Sale Reminder

Remember, J-List is having three great sales right now. 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. Next, we have a special offer on J-List's world-famous anime and kanji T-shirts. Through the end of December, buy any two J-List shirts shipping from San Diego and get a free shirt chosen randomly by us. Finally, everyone who makes an order is entered into a drawing for a $50 gift certificate, one per day, given away by Santa Megumi on Christmas! And if you're ordering products stocked in San Diego, we now offer a UPS Next Day Air option too.

Cool Gift Ideas From J-List

J-List is hard at work processing the orders we're receiving every day, getting everything out the door to our customers. There are some great Christmas gift ideas, from our Fuku-bukuro grab bags to our trademark J-List T-shirts to our iTunes Japan prepaid cards and always-fun J-List Gift Certificates, which are send in high quality PDF form to the email address you specify. How can J-List serve you today?