November 24, 2014

Some good news for Japan’s tourism industry, and thoughts on Japanese words.

We hope everyone is enjoying the J-List Holiday Sale, which we started early, to give customers more time to receive their packages. Make an order now, and get 18% off orders over $150, or 10% off orders over $60. (Details here.)

While Japan is not without its challenges, including the news that the country has officially slipped back into recession after a negative reaction by consumers to April’s 3% consumption tax hike, there’s some good news, too. It seems the number of foreign visitors topped 1 million in September, an increase of 26% from last year and the highest number of foreign visitors to Japan ever in a month. While we might think of “foreigners” as happy Westerners posing with maids in maid cafes in Akiba, in reality the bulk of foreign visitors to Japan are from South Korea, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, countries that have close cultural bonds with Japan, certain silly island disputes notwithstanding. The increase in visitors is in part due to the weaker yen, which makes it cheaper for everyone to visit Japan, but it also represents a “peace dividend” thanks to lessening international tensions throughout Asia. One of the most popular spots in Japan these days is a train crossing in Kamakura, a pleasant city south of Yokohama where the historic Enoshima train line runs. The intersection is featured in the opening credits of the Slam Dunk basketball anime, which was widely seen throughout Asia, making it a popular spot for 聖地巡礼 seichi junrei or “making a pilgrimage to the holy land,” what visiting real places seen in anime is known as. On some days you can’t get near the intersection because of all the foreigners standing there waiting to get a shot as the train goes by.

Coming to Japan and using Japanese every day was a new experience for me, and I remember actually feeling mild soreness in my mouth at the end of the day, since speaking the language requires muscles to be more “tense” than when speaking English. At other times my brain felt “tired” because it seemed many of the linguistic concepts I’d stored up over the years were being split into two. While we’re all quite content with the single word “sister,” in Japanese this concept is divided into お姉さん oneesan for “older sister” and 妹 imouto for “younger sister,” a distinction which must always be made, even when talking about twins born only minutes apart. The Japanese have two words to express the concept of “cold,” which are 寒い samui (meaning coldness in the air) and 冷たい tsumetai (for coldness to the touch), and for some cultural reason they insist that 水 mizu (water) is a totally separate concept from お湯 o-yu (hot water). The Japanese often import English words then split them into two versions for their own convenience: glass in a window is ガラス garasu, while a glass you drink from is グラス gurasu, and you can be sure gaijin will get the wrong word every time. Another source of confusion comes from the fact that each kanji has two readings, a Chinese and a Japanese one. A good example of this is the kanji for “mountain,” which is san using the Chinese pronunciation or yama using the Japanese one, and for most every mountain these can be used interchangeably, e.g. either Akagi-san or Akagi-yama is acceptable when referring to Mt. Akagi, the dead volcano that towers of J-List’s world headquarters. One exception is Mt. Fuji, which should always be pronounced “Fuji-san, as the name Fuji-yama has become hopelessly cliched after decades overuse by American soldiers and foreign tourists.

J-List's Black Friday/Cuber Monday sale starts NOW!

We love finding rare and fun products from Japan for the Holiday season as much as our customers love buying them, but this year there’s a slight problem: the usual “Black Friday/Cyber Monday” weekend is one week later than in normal years, which shortens the time for J-List customers to receive their orders. Our solution? Start our big sale one week early! This year we’re really going big, with 10% off everything on the site if you buy $60 or more, or a whopping 18% off if your order total is $160 or more! (Doesn’t apply to certain items like iTunes cards or gift cards, grab bags or subscription items.) No coupon codes to enter, just enjoy the savings. This sale will end at the end of Monday, so get shopping now!

November 21, 2014

Confusing English words in Japanese, and life in Japan during November.

Confusing foreign loan words in Japanese, and life in Japan during November.

November is time for many things in Japan. It’s a time to enjoy 紅葉 koh-yoh, the crimson changing of the leaves, and for marveling at cute children dressed for their “7-5-3″ (pronounced shichi-go-san) ceremony, a custom in which parents with sons or daughters age 3, sons age 5 or daughters age 7 will visit a professional photographer and have pictures of their kids taken wearing beautiful kimonos, then visit a Shinto shrine together. You can tell it’s November because every road suddenly becomes congested with traffic due to construction projects cities are rushing to finish by March, when the fiscal year changes. It’s also a time when you hear a lot of loud motorcycle gangs driving through the streets, making as much noise as they can. This is the boso-zoku (lit. “violent running tribe”), biker gangs that ride on motorcycles modified to be extra loud, who drive through city streets revving their engines and honking horns and waking people up mainly because they want to get attention from society at large, or something. Soon it will be too cold for them to go riding, so they’re getting all the pent-up energy out of their systems this month.

One of the benefits of living in Japan is that the Japanese use many loan words from English, which takes some of the pressure off when studying the language. The trouble is that not all foreign loan words come from English, though this doesn’t stop nearly every Japanese from trying to use them on English speakers freely. Words like グラビア (gravure, sexy bikini models like the wonderful Ai Shinozaki), アルバイト (arubaito, part time job), アンケート (ankeeto, questionnaire), ランドセル (randoderu, those cute Japanese school backpacks) and ルー (roux, squares of concentrated curry) are all common words used in Japan that native English speakers puzzle over when they encounter them. Sometimes the reasons why words come in from languages other than English are historical, like the way most medical terms were imported from German because the influence of that country was strong in the late 19th century, and other times the reasons are phonetic, for example the Japanese use the French word pierot for clown to avoid confusion with the English word “crown.” Other times it seems quite random, like the way the oil
myrrh, which is used in preserving mummies, came to be the Japanese word for mummy itself (ミイラ miira). Another interesting word that comes up in the anime industry a lot these days is クール kuuru, from the French cours, which has come to mean “one 12 week period.” Most anime series these days are 1クール wan kuuru or “one set of 12 episodes,” while higher budget shows like Steins;Gate are 2クール tsuu kuuru or 24 episodes.

J-List's Black Friday/Cuber Monday sale starts NOW!

We love finding rare and fun products from Japan for the Holiday season as much as our customers love buying them, but this year there’s a slight problem: the usual “Black Friday/Cyber Monday” weekend is one week later than in normal years, which shortens the time for J-List customers to receive their orders. Our solution? Start our big sale one week early! This year we’re really going big, with 10% off everything on the site if you buy $60 or more, or a whopping 18% off if your order total is $160 or more! (Doesn’t apply to certain items like iTunes cards or gift cards, grab bags or subscription items.) No coupon codes to enter, just enjoy the savings. This sale will end at the end of Monday, so get shopping now!

November 19, 2014

Some bad economic news for Japan, and an Eva Fair at 7-11.

Some economic bad news for Japan, and an "Eva Fair" at 7-11!

A couple days ago the news hit that Japan’s economy had declined for the second straight quarter, officially slipping into its fifth recession in the last 15 years, after a hike in the consumption tax caused consumers to cut their spending. It came as a big blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Abenomics,” which aims to force inflation and wage growth through spending on economic projects and enacting various reforms. Recessions in Japan are a bit different from what you might be used to at home. While they’re certainly hard on people, the reality is that most households won’t be affected that much thanks to the Japanese habit of saving money. (The average household has US$170,000 in savings, nearly always earning 0% in banks.) Whereas unemployment is a big problem during economic downturns in other countries, Japan’s unemployment rate is currently just 3.6%…but that’s not really a good thing, as it’s an indication of the huge labor shortage the country will face as it ages. I’m often asked if Japan’s local economic problems affect J-List, and the surprising answer is that they often do in positive ways. Japanese companies are extremely conservative and rarely embrace change willingly, and we’ve noticed that some companies – say, the visual novel publishers we work with – are more open to taking risks and embracing markets outside Japan when they have no choice.

Without a doubt, one of the most wonderful things about Japan is its conbini (convenience stores), which are filled with everything you need, from prepared bento lunches and onigiri rice balls to strawberry and whipped cream sandwiches. You can pay your electric bill, buy concert tickets, or eat an “American dog” (what a corn dog is called here). Convenience stores got their start in Japan in 1974 when a supermarket chain executive named Hideo Shimizu took a bus trip across the U.S. to observe business in different regions, and fell in love with the convenience of 7-Eleven stores. His company bought a license to run 7-Eleven stores in Japan, a business venture that worked out so well that the Japanese company grew to 15,000 stores in Japan alone, eventually buying the parent company in the U.S. A decade or so ago anime studios realized that teaming up with convenience stores was an effective way to cross-market its properties, and now it’s common to see them cooperating on projects. The other day I went into my local 7-Eleven and was pleased to see they were having an “Eva Fair” with lots of Evangelion themed products, to promote the end of the manga. You can even enter to win an Eva-themed sports car.

Did you order your J-List grab bags yet?

Every year the hardworking staff of J-List prepares traditional Japanese 福袋 fuku-bukuro, colorful red grab bags filled with great products for you to discover, from random Japanese figures and plush toys to gashapon capsule toys to bento boxes and related products to some very ecchi items. This year we’ve got a great lineup, with several awesome sets of grab bags to choose from. All items will be shipped in a separate sturdy box, with items securely packed, and a traditional red fukubukuro will be included, folded up, in case you’re giving these items as gifts. Order yours now!

November 17, 2014

Japan’s interest in foreigners like us, and a surprising new Sailor Moon product line.

Japan's interest in foreigners like us, and a surprising new Sailor Moon product.

One theme I write about a lot is how Japan is “the only country in the world that cares what its foreigners think.” There are popular TV shows in which bilingual gaijin are asked what aspects of Japanese society they’d like to see change, or which put camera crews in the arrival lobby of Narita Airport to interview foreigners who have just arrived and follow them around as they explore the country. Another popular show is called Nippon no Deban: Rediscover Japan, hosted by popular comedian Tokoro George, who was the voice of Ponyo’s father if you happened to see the Japanese dub of that film. In the show, foreigners ask questions like, “where does the Japanese obsession with always being on time come from?” or “why do Japanese females use the word kawaii several hundred times a day, even about some potentially non-kawaii things?” and the show tries its best to answer the questions. While Japanese have always been interested in hearing what foreigners think of their country – many follow me on Twitter for this reason – some of these TV programs presumably exist because of official support from the Japanese government’s “Cool Japan” program, which aims to remind the world how cool the country is, in imitation of South Korea’s financial support for companies exporting Korean dramas and K-POP groups to other countries.

We all use euphemisms every time we want to discuss something potentially unpleasant in an indirect way, but the Japanese have raised this to an art form. Everything from the constipation all Japanese women seem cursed with to referring to anything related to sex with the letter “H” (ecchi) are generally discussed using roundabout phrases. Death is something rarely mentioned directly, and when Nitroplus music producer Shingo Minamino was tragically killed in a random knife attack in Osaka in 2012, the phrase 帰らぬ人となった kaeranu hito to natta (“he became a person who would never return home again”) was used. Sometimes when you go to ride a train in Tokyo you find that the lines have all stopped, due to a 人身事故 jinshin-jiko or “an accident involving physical injury,” which is a polite way of saying a troubled individual decided to opt out of the rest of his life by jumping in front of a train. A woman’s monthly period is also something rarely discussed directly, instead using the word 生理 seiri, which actually means “biology,” or with colorful phrases like 旗日 hatabi (“flag day”), which is obvious if you look at a Japanese flag. Women who grew up in the 1990s have another interesting euphemism for this: Sailor Moon’s Day, the day when Sailor Moon comes for a visit. Capitalizing on this cute term, a Japanese company has released a line of officially licensed feminine products which allow women to banish their monthly cycles in the name of the moon!

Littlewitch Romanescque has gone Golden Master!

Fans are going to love the upcoming English visual novel Girlish Grimoire Littlewitch Romanesque for a lot of reasons, including kawaii characters, a great gameplay system involving rolling dice to build up magical skill then learning spells and going on quests, and the depth of the game story. In addition to Aria and Kaya, the two girls whose magical training you’re responsible for, there’s a host of other characters, like the cute catgirl maid Tillet, the female Knight Rosetta, the eccentric elf Marrett, and the sexy architect, who loves building beautiful things. All are romancible characters in this fully translated, voiced and uncensored game that all fans should preorder now.