Friday, December 28, 2012

Japan's Real Problem is Leadership

What is leadership? Everyone probably has their own definition, perhaps something about individuals with natural talent having the courage to stand up and be a beacon for others to follow, hopefully choosing to do what's right rather than what's popular with the most people. While Japan currently faces a huge number of problems ranging from economic stagnation to population decline to an infrastructure in need of renewal, I think one of the biggest challenges is the chronic lack of leadership in Japanese politics. While you or I may think that leaders should have unique skills and vision that set them apart from the average person, in Japan people spend their lives learning the importance of getting along harmoniously and not expressing your opinion in an overt way, and the best leaders are those who can gently nudge others to see things their way. A lot of Americans complain about the two-party system, which makes it hard for serious third party candidates to get a toe-hold in the minds of voters, but Japan takes things to the other extreme, with 14 large and small parties that make a lot of noise but don't move the country in any specific direction. Then there's the tendency for all Japanese to immediately turn on anyone impudent enough to actually become Prime Minister, which is described by the Japanese proverb deru kui wa utareru or "the standing nail is driven" (e.g. anyone who stands out for any reason will be hammered back into place). This more than any other reason is why Japan's leadership has been so dysfunctional over the past two decades, a period which has seen only four leadership changes in the United Kingdom but a staggering 15 in Japan

Meanwhile, in an alternate moe universe... (game link here)

My Life Is Becoming An Anime

Anime, of course, is a collection of fun memes which continually build on story and character concepts established in previous works. It's a completely false world, or rather a world that's as stylized as, say, Hollywood movies are, and just as we don't actually see cars exploding dramatically in the U.S. every other day, most Japanese males don't find themselves surrounded by harems of adoring females on a regular basis. Still, it's funny how often anime seems to become real for me. Whenever I attend the school festival at my son's high school, I feel like I've lived through a 22 minute "school festival episode," and when I take my family to Guam for a vacation, I feel like we've all dropped into one of those "beach episodes" every anime studio feels compelled to include. Once I was talking to my wife, and I happened to ask what club she was in in high school. She replied, "The light music club, why do you ask?" which was quite a thing to hear as a K-On! fan. The other day I was watching the ending to Chuunibyo Demo Koi ga Shitai, which is about high schoolers who'd previous suffered from "8th graders' disease" (the name for the tendency of kids in junior high school to engage in childish fantasies) trying to discard their delusions and live normal lives. My wife said, "8th graders' disease? Oh, I had that really bad when I was a girl." She didn't give details, but I can't get the image of her wearing an eye patch and using imaginary super powers to open train doors. Woop woop!

Sometimes anime can become surprisingly real.

And in case you don't know this...

The Chinese Zodiac in Japan

If you browse J-List's Home & Traditional page, where we stock fun and interesting things for your home along with traditional products from Japan, you're likely to notice a lot of snake-related products right now. This is because 2013 is the Year of the Snake according to the Chinese zodiac. The animal for the year a person was born in can be quite important in Japan, and there's a body of beliefs based on the system, for example people born in a Snake Year are thought to be compatible with Roosters and Oxes but not Monkeys or Boars, and so on. Just as you can look up your horoscope using traditional Western astrology, a lot of websites are happy to give you advice based on what your Chinese zodiac animal happens to be.
The story of how Chinese Zodiac came to be is extremely famous, as well-known throughout Asia as Noah's Ark is in the West. Here's the story, in case you don't know it. On the day of the New Year the Gods (or Buddha, depending on which version you read) declared a race among thirteen animals to come and offer New Year's Greetings. The Ox knew he was the slowest animal, so he started out before the others. The Rat noticed this and hopped on his back, jumping off at the last minute to claim first place. The Ox came in second, followed by the fleet Tiger. The Rabbit was next, with the kind-hearted Dragon behind, who was delayed helping the Rabbit across the river. The Horse ran along then, but the Snake slithered between his legs and startled him, beating him to the finish line. The Sheep, Monkey and Rooster were working as a team to get across the river, and arrived next. Then came the Dog, delayed because he stopped to take a bath along the way, with the Boar coming in last -- he'd gotten confused and climbed the wrong mountain, forcing him to backtrack. The thirteenth animal was the Cat, who had forgotten what day the race was held and asked his friend the cunning Rat, who told him the wrong date. This is why there's no Year of the Cat, and why cats hate rats and mice today.

The Chinese Zodiac is quite important to Japanese people.

Year End = Extra Awesome Product Update

This is kind of a special update, since the year is winding down, so we've posted an extra awesome volley of new products including all the popular anime magazines for the month, including Megami Magazine, NyanType, Dengeki Moeoh and more. These magazines are loaded with great free stuff for fans in the form of posters, calendars and even figures. Grab the issues you want before they're gone, or consider a revolving subscription, which can be canceled or changed at any time.

Last Chance to Take Advantage of J-List's EMS Sale

Christmas is over, but our special sale continues through the end of December! Through the end of 2012, 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: buy any two J-List shirts shipping from San Diego and get a free shirt chosen randomly by us. All sales end December 31st.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Prime Minsiter Abe's Second Chance

Today marks the return of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to power, as Shinzo Abe is officially confirmed as Japan's newest Prime Minister. Mr. Abe faces many challenges, including dealing with the deflation that's kept the Japanese economy stagnant, developing a workable energy policy and managing delicate relationships with South Korea and China. Though Mr. Abe received good marks on foreign policy issues when he was Prime Minister in 2006-2007, avoiding inflammatory visits to Yasukini Shrine (a Buddhist temple where the souls of Japanese war criminals are interred), this time he's been specifically elected as a "hawk" who will defend Japan's territory from encroachment by China. The LDP is a conservative pro-business party, and is taking action to help Japanese companies like Sony and Panasonic, whose exports made Japan famous before the companies fell on hard times over the past four years. He's also embracing the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), a group of business leaders who have advised Japan's governments in a semiofficial capacity since 1946 but who were given the cold shoulder by the last ruling party. While there's a lot of cynicism by foreigners in Japan, who joke about forming a betting pool to guess how long Mr. Abe will last this time around and what his official reason will be when he quits this time (in 2007 it was because of "poor health"), I am hopeful that better economic news is in store for Japan in the coming months.

Prime Minister Abe gets another chance as PM. Don't screw it up!

Big Cleaning 2012

We hope everyone had a great holiday, wherever you are in the world. My family had a more-or-less traditional Japanese Christmas dinner, with baked chicken, mashed potatoes, "Christmas cake" and sushi, and it was great fun. Let's do it again next year!
Now that Christmas has over, Japan is getting ready for the end of 2012 and the arrival of the new year, which is the most important time in Japan. There's lots to do, including buying traditional New Year's foods like mochi, pressed squares of white rice called "rice cakes" in English (this name sounds really strange to Japanese people) which are delicious to eat. The Japanese have a great year-end tradition of cleaning the house from top to bottom, called 大掃除 oh-souji or "big cleaning," and I love it because crossing into a new year with a clean house feels great and mentally prepares you for new challenges. Companies have this tradition as well, and tomorrow the J-List staff will be processing the day's orders early, then we'll stop all work and clean our company from top to bottom, throwing away the past year's accumulated junk and making everything fresh and new.

It's time for year-end "Big Cleaning"!

Awkward Moments as a Gaijin in Japan

As an American living in Japan, I go about my day in a normal way, hitting the gym, filling my tank with gas, swinging by the store to do some shopping, etc., and the people I encounter deal with me pretty much like they would any Japanese person. Still, there are times when being a gaijin in Japan can feel a little strange, like that time (discussed a few updates ago) I went to a concert and found myself the only foreigner in a huge crowd of short, black-haired Japanese female fans. Five years ago I was sitting in a doctor's office when a TV news report about the death of Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, happened to come up. Suddenly I was acutely aware that I was an American sitting in a room filled with Japanese people, more than a few of whom were old enough to remember the events of World War II, and I probably had one of those big anime sweat drops floating above my head. This experience was repeated almost verbatim yesterday while at my local onsen hot springs bath. There's a TV inside the sauna room, and while I was sitting inside there was a new report about the death of Keiji Nakazawa, the manga artist who created Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen), the famous story about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Mr. Nakazawa was six years old on August 6, 1945 when the atomic comb exploded just 1.2 km from his school; by chance he had been standing in the shadow of a brick wall, which allowed him to survive and tell his story in manga form later. When the news report about his passing was broadcast, the sauna seemed to grow a little more quiet, although that might have been my imagination.

Sometimes it feels strange being an American in Japan.

Thanks for Making Christmas 2012 Great!

Christmas 2012 is behind us, and we'd like to thank everyone for helping to make this the best-ever Christmas in the history of J-List. We sold tons of anime calendars, "Fuku-bukuro" grab bags, cute little cat figures for your phone plus those crazy horse head masks, and we had a great time. If you missed anyone on your Christmas list, remember we can shoot a J-List gift certificate to them for you at the speed of email. Thanks again, and see you next year!

J-List Winter Sale Continues!

Christmas is over, but our special sale continues through the end of December! Through the end of 2012, 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: buy any two J-List shirts shipping from San Diego and get a free shirt chosen randomly by us.
(As promised, we selected one lucky J-List customer per day over the past month to receive a $50 gift certificate. The winners have already been contacted by "Santa Megumi." Congratulations if you were one of the lucky winners!)

Monday, December 24, 2012

Random Nihongo Lesson

Now it's time for a Japanese lesson, with some fun words you might be able to make use of someday. There's a class of single-word phrases which, for some reason, have many possible translation paths in English, making them challenging (but fun) to use. First there's やはり yahari (it also shows up as やっぱり yappari quite commonly), which you use to express your own expectations about something, roughly equivalent to "I knew it" or "just as I thought." When someone tells you something you didn't know, you can use なるほど naruhodo (nah-roo-ho-doh), which means "I see" or "that's news to me." If you watch an hour of anime in Japanese, you'll likely hear the phrase まさか masaka (mah-sah-kah) at least once, usually said by a shocked character -- it just means "it can't be!" or "you've got to be joking!" Finally there's a great word to pull out when you want to praise someone: さすが sasuga (sah-soo-gah), which roughly means "I always knew you were incredible" or "You never let us down." So if you have a friend or coworker named Yamada-san who does something good, hit him with "Sasuga, Yamada-san!" and know that you've made his day.

Have fun using these random Japanese phrases.

Inefficient Japan

Japan is a wonderful country, full of friendly people and vibrant culture that seems tailor-made to appeal to gaijin like us. Unfortunately, it also happens to be one of the most inefficient places on Earth. While J-List has always made use of the latest Internet technologies to serve our customers better, we often find the Japanese suppliers and distributors we deal with are a decade or more behind us, still sending us 20-page faxes every night rather than PDF files sent through email. I'm a huge fan of RSS, the system websites use to organize their data for easy distribution -- incidentally, the J-List site has excellent support for RSS feeds, allowing you to automatically track certain types of products with tools like Google Reader -- but of course no Japanese publisher supports RSS on their websites, making it harder for us to learn about their upcoming books and order them. There are some very inefficient job categories in Japan, like men whose job it is to guide you to an empty parking space when you arrive at the mall, or people who sit by a road, manually counting the number of cars that go by each hour so the city can track traffic flow. Over the past decade, J-List's home city of Isesaki has been undergoing some major reconstruction, converting train tracks that run through the middle of the city to elevated tracks. On either side of some recently constructed raised train tracks -- exactly at the "location" of the Shinonome Research Lab from Nichijou, as luck would have it -- I noticed that there were always men standing on either side of the tracks, watching the road. It turns out that the clearance of the train tracks is a little lower than normal, so the men stand there to watch for trucks that might be higher than the 3.8 meter clearance and stop them before they try to cross under. Could you imagine being paid to stand and watch a road for 12 hours a day?

And another thing: Japanese banks close at 3 pm. It's a plot to force men to get married!

A Merry Christmas from J-List!

Well Christmas is here, and soon children all over the world will be nestled all snug in their beds, probably unsure of what a "sugar-plum" is but not caring as they wait to hear reindeer hooves on the roof. What does Christmas mean to you? For me it means having a special dinner with the family followed by the annual viewing of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special and maybe listening to some Mormon Tabernacle Choir songs while opening presents. I join the entire staff of J-List in wishing you the best Christmas ever!
Christmas in Japan, of course, is very different from in other parts of the world. Like Valentine's Day, Christmas is a fun custom imported from the West that exists largely because department stores realized it was a good way for them to sell stuff. Even the Japanese tradition of eating "Christmas cake" on New Year's Eve came about through a clever marketing campaign by the Fujiya Confectionery Company, which decided to adopt the British custom of Christmas cakes to Japan in 1922, though the Japanese version is usually sponge cake with whipped cream and strawberries rather than fruitcake. Although Japanese love Christmas, they sometimes don't seem to "get" the holiday in the same way most of us do in the West, as seen by their custom of playing Christmas music through February or so. It's still cold out, they reason, so why not listen to Jingle Bells one more time?

Best wishes for a very merry and moe Christmas, from all of us at J-List!

Sword Art Online @ J-List

The world didn't end on December 21st, but it did for some the following day, with the airing of the final episode of Sword Art Online. The awesome tale of a massively multiplayer online game in which people die if they're killed in-game, .hack SAO was the smash hit of 2012. If you're a fan of the show, we've got figures, keychains. posters, 2013 calendars, even some interesting parody products. Why not browse our selection of Sword Art Online products and see what we've got in stock?