October 31, 2014

Exploring Halloween in Japan, and nostalgia over a less digital age.

Happy Halloween from J-List! As an American growing up, October 31st was always one of my favorite days of the year, and I have many fond memories of trick-or-treating with friends while wearing costumes my mom had sewn for me. (Aren’t moms the best?) When I came to Japan back in 1991, there was very little awareness of Halloween outside ESL classrooms, which, being a “place where you learn English from a gaijin,” were always decorated with Jack-o-Lanterns and ghosts so the students could get some sense of Western traditions. For the longest time Halloween was little more than an excuse for foreigners in Tokyo to drink and be loud in public while wearing costumes, but it eventually started to gain popularity with Japanese, thanks in part to marketing efforts by Tokyo Disneyland, which puts on various themed events in October. Over the past few years, Halloween has positively exploded among Japan’s cosplay-loving young people, who are all too happy to create amazing costumes and show them off in hip parts of Tokyo like Shibuya. Considering the massive popularity Halloween enjoys in Japan now, I can only wonder what things will be like in a few more years.

I truly love the modern era we live in, with its convenient smartphones that are more powerful than any computer I owned growing up, and world-shrinking services like Twitter, which allow me to tweet about a TV show in which Japanese comedians try to eat Swedish surströmming (canned fermented Baltic sea herring) and get instant feedback from fans in Sweden about it. Computers have become so powerful I can run multiple versions of Windows side by side, useful when translating those wonderful Japanese visual novels we sell, and I can emulate my first computer ever easily on a Mac or PC, just for the nostalgia factor. Still, sometimes I feel there’s something missing, a “tactile” element that hasn’t translated well into our modern age. Back in the Atari 2600 days, I loved to look at the incredibly detailed art on the game cartridges, which could somehow make a game consisting of blinking dots seem much more real than it was. Yasu, J-List’s buyer of manga and artbooks, is the same as me, often talking about the joy of touching an NES game cartridge, or the analog feel of a gashapon (egg toy) machine as you turned the handle to dispense your prize. Happily, it’s possible to sample these, at least, since we have two authentic gashapon machines in stock right now.

Start your holiday shopping early! Here's $10 to get you going.

While you enjoy your Halloween weekend, your thoughts might turn to the coming Holiday season and Christmas, which is making its way slowly towards us. Since most of J-List’s products, from amazingly soft Totoro blankets to kawaii bento boxes and accessories to our famous lineup of Japanese snacks, all ship from Japan, we like to suggest that customers start thinking about what they want to buy early, so they can choose cheap shipping methods like SAL. This year is a great one to buy cool products from Japan: thanks to the strong yen, all prices have been dropped 20% compared to last year, and all shipping is cheaper, too. To help you get your holiday shopping started, take $10 off any purchase of $40 or more using code MEGUMIGO10! (Good this weekend only.)

October 29, 2014

Comparing anime and visual novels, and exploring NEET culture through sci-fi movies.

Another anime series that caught my eye this season was Grisaia no Kajitsu, a harem-style show about a mysterious main character named Yuji who transfers to Mihama Academy, where he meets his five female classmates, each of whom possess secrets of their own. Like Clannad, Da Capo and Fate/stay night before it, this anime is based on a popular Japanese visual novel, something that can be both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because the anime has a built-in dedicated fan base right from the start, but a curse, too, because the rich subtlety of the story often doesn’t translate well into anime form. When studios base an anime on an existing game, they have to make decisions about how to translate the story. Should they animate the “true ending” (if there is one), as was is the case with Steins;Gate, or maybe throw everything out the window and make a totally original ending, as in the School Days anime? (The game is not nearly as dark as the anime’s ending was, and we recommend it a lot.) They can choose a heroine at random, causing frustration among fans who liked other characters (I’m looking at you, Shuffle anime), or perhaps structure things like Amagami, so that each heroine gets her own (slightly shortened) story arc and proper ending. Why not browse our lineup of English-translated H-games and all-ages visual novels now, and see what titles might interest you?

My daughter is surprisingly wise for being just 17 years old. While we were together in San Diego during the summer, she told me, “Now we’re not going to go to the same restaurants we always go to. Every time we eat out let’s find some new restaurant and have a new experience.” As a result, we hit a dozen or more places we might never have discovered, including a really nice Afghan restaurant downtown and some top-quality eateries in the Little Italy area. Considering my penchant for keeping too close to my comfort zone (I’m likely to find a video game I like and play it straight for, oh, eight years or so), I’ve tried my best to follow her advice in other areas of my life, for example by seeking out films I might not otherwise have picked up. The other night I watched a Spanish sci-fi movie called Los Últimos Días (The Last days) about an event known as el pánico (the panic) which makes it impossible for people to go outside, forcing them to live indoors. We never learn what the source of the panic is – the possibility is left open that it’s actually psychosomatic, a global epidemic of agoraphobia that has swept through every corner of humanity, though we’re never told for sure. The film seemed (to me) to be making some interesting commentary on the Japanese phenomenon of NEETs and hikikomori, which are discussed (and at times celebrated) in anime like Welcome to the N.H.K., Rozen Maiden and Heaven’s Memo Pad.

The Christmas of Sailor Moon is coming!

J-List has been really busy this month, adding hundreds of new stock items to the site in preparation for the upcoming Christmas season. This year is going to be extra special for Sailor Moon fans, since there are so many great products available, which has not been the case in previous years. We’ve got everything from Sailor Moon iPhone cases to Sailor Moon bento and plush toys and figures. We love the Sailor Moon Chara-Pos poster sets that were posted last time, so pick up a set before they all disappear.

October 27, 2014

Japanese foods you may not have tried, and why do the Japanese love ‘kawaii’ so much?

Fun

One of my favorite aspects of living in Japan is definitely the food. There’s lots to find here, from amazing seasonal favorites (tempura’ed matsukate mushrooms in the fall, yum) to Japanese adaptions of Western foods (katsu, e.g. fried pork cutlet, and curry rice come to mind) to a level of seafood appreciation I could never have achieved while in the U.S. While many Japanese foods are famous all around the world, there are naturally some you may not have heard of. One is お茶漬け ochazuke, essentially a pleasant “green tea soup” containing green tea, nori seaweed, rice crackers and extra flavorings such as wasabi, salmon and shrimp. Just put steamed rice in a bowl, add a packet of ochazuke mix, and pour boiling water over it and eat – it’s especially great in the winter. Another food I like a lot is 振り掛け furikake, a word that means “to sprinkle over.” It’s a term for any dried, powdered food you sprinkle over white rice and eat, and since it usually contains things like dried scrambled egg, salmon and nori seaweed, it’s quite approachable to nervous foreigners. If you want to try some great random Japanese foods, may we recommend our popular Japanese Snack Subscription service?

One concept that has come to define Japan is its love of all things kawaii, a term the Japanese will use to describe everything from a baby or a puppy to a red-in-the-face tsundere girl with twintails or the latest character creations from San-X. While the modern rise of kawaii consumer culture started in the 1970s, as Japanese households suddenly found themselves with enough disposable income to spend on characters like Hello Kitty, the word itself if quite old, appearing in the Tale of Genji from the 12th century. But why do the Japanese like kawaii so much? There are several theories, including that looking at cute things releases endorphins and lowers stress levels, or that the existence of cute characters encourages fans to organize themselves in various “camps” depending on what character they love. (I’m quite partial to Sumikko Gurashi, myself.) I asked Mai, J-List’s buyer of bento boxes and character goods, and she told me, “We don’t really think about it too often, but when we go shopping for something, we usually think, I might as well choose the cutest item I can find.” This is probably why Japanese consumer goods companies started putting cute faces on their products.

Totoro Blankets Now in stock!

One of the J-List products I’m extremely happy to stock are the super soft Totoro and Ghibli blankets we sell every year. They’re not just soft, they’re the software and warmest blankets I’ve ever found, and my family treasures the Totoro blankets we’ve accumulated over the years. Happily the yen is much weaker than in past years, making the Totoro blankets more affordable than ever. The only downside to these blankets is that your family may fight over who gets the Totoro blanket tonight, as my family often does.

October 24, 2014

Thoughts on technology and IC cards, and learning about Japan’s culture through shoes.

It’s funny how Japan can seem technologically advanced in some areas but behind the times in others. Apple’s new payment system is getting a lot of news coverage in the U.S. right now, possibly heralding an era where we’ll all be making purchases speedily with our phones or similar devices. Yet this kind of thing isn’t new at all in Japan, where people have been making purchases using IC cards with names like Edy, PiTaPa and DIC Card for years, and even my wife, so analog that she still sticks physical sticky notes to her computer screen rather than learn to use the “stickies” app in her computer, makes purchases regularly with her Nanaco card at 7-11. The biggest benefit from the rise in contactless payments has been Suica cards, which let everyone pass smoothly through train turnstiles rather than lining up to buy train tickets, and otakus love their Suica cards so much they make art that can be printed on stickers to customize the cards. While Japan seems to be ahead of the U.S. when it comes to contactless payments, they’re quite behind in other areas, for example, rather than buying music online via convenient services like iTunes Japan, they still prefer buying old-fashioned music CDs. Sometimes there are benefits to being behind the curve: since Japan never lost it’s coin-operated video arcades, there are several in our city if I want to visit one.

One topic I’m interested in is how certain aspects of Japan are more accessible to “outsiders” (what the term gaijin really means) through the country’s popular culture than others. A good example is the way imagery related to Japan’s Shinto religion, with its beautiful arches and shrine maidens and fox spirits, is easy to find in anime, manga and games, while influence of the more austere Buddhism is much more difficult to encounter. Often the Japanese don’t think to portray certain aspects of their daily lives in anime or manga because it’s too 当たり前 atari-mae (common, ordinary, unexceptional). Once I was blogging about the custom of students standing and bowing to their teacher before starting class, and I realized there were almost no images of this to be found on the Internet, and I realized that this is a part of life that Japanese take for granted and would never think to show visually. Another area is shoes. While taking off shoes and leaving them in the 玄関 genkan, a recessed area near the front door that’s considered to be “outside” the house proper, is something everyone does several times a day, it’s not something fan-artists on Pivix think to draw very often since it’s so mundane. If it weren’t for the “girl rushing out the door with a piece of toast in her mouth” meme, it’d be almost impossible to find images of Japanese people putting on their shoes.

Totoro Blankets Now in stock!

One of the J-List products I’m extremely happy to stock are the super soft Totoro and Ghibli blankets we sell every year. They’re not just soft, they’re the software and warmest blankets I’ve ever found, and my family treasures the Totoro blankets we’ve accumulated over the years. Happily the yen is much weaker than in past years, making the Totoro blankets more affordable than ever. Why not order some for your family this year?