I’m often asked how I can come with so many observations about Japan, to which I usually respond that it’s hard to filter them out, since Japan is literally all around me. Like most people who love onsen (hot springs) and sento (traditional Japanese public baths) here, I keep a basket in my car that contains all the bath related things I need: razor, toothbrush, small towel, a tape-covered paperback novel that I don’t mind trashing. I also have a small notebook and pen for scribbling down ideas that come to me while sitting in the tub. For example, the other day I realized how complex something as basic as slippers can be. In Japan, shoes are removed at the front door in all homes and many businesses (including J-List), and slippers are worn while indoors. When you visit a Japanese family at home, they’ll usually put out a pair of slippers for you to use, which can be problematic when since only Ewoks could wear the tiny things comfortably. Thus, every foreigner living in Japan must choose what kind of relationship he will have with Japanese slippers — will he politely accept them, or refuse and wear his socks, knowing that he’s breaking a minor social rule? Incidentally, did you know that the modern concept of slippers is actually a Japanese invention? Back in the early Meiji Period, when Westerners would visit a Japanese home they’d walk right in without taking their shoes off. So in 1907 (or 1876, according to another theory), a shoemaker named Risaburo Tokuno came up with an “outer shoe” that covered the dirty boots of foreigners, keeping the house clean. These supposedly evolved into the modern concept of slippers as an indoor shoe.
The other day we found an old English textbook my wife had used in Junior High School. My kids and I delighted in reading her English homework from 20+ years ago, especially rejoicing in finding any errors she made at the time (we’re kind of mean that way, I’m not sure why). One thing we noticed were little numbers written above words in her textbook. For example, in the sentence “Jane’s arrival livened up the party,” there was a 1 above “Jane’s,” a 3 above “arrival” and so on. My wife had been doing what a lot of Japanese do when learning English, being consciously aware of the number of syllables in correctly pronounced words. The Japanese language is based on syllables rather than individual sounds represented by letters, and as a result they unconsciously extend the limited repertoire of sounds from their own language into English, which is where the often thick Japanese accents come from. You and I know that the word “weekend” has two syllables, but to a Japanese who hasn’t internalized the rules of English pronunciation, it sounds like “oo-EE-koo-EN-doh,” a five-syllable word. If you’re a native speaker of English, thank your parents next time you see them — you don’t know how fortunate you are to not have to go through the difficulties of learning English.
Pocky has gone from being a wonky snack that a few anime fans knew about to being a major representative of Japanese snack culture all around the world. The chocolate-covered pretzel stick, which gets its name from the pokki! sound you hear when you snap one in half, was first introduced in 1965 by the Glico Confectionery Company under the not-so-cool name of Chocoteck, where it was an instant hit. Glico was founded by Riichi Ezaki, who after the death of his infant son swore to improve the health of Japan’s children by introducing sweets containing glycogen harvested from oysters, which is where the name Glico comes from. There are many different flavors of Pocky released each year, from traditional chocolate to half-bitter “Men’s Pocky” to delicious variations like Pocky Crush (almond, cookies n’ cream) to Green Tea Marble Pocky to the new Pocky Dessert, essentially a cake wrapped around a biscuit stick. The Glico corporation has declared that November 11 (11/11, which looks like four Pocky sticks lined up) to be International Pocky Day, and to help everyone celebrate, J-List is having a special sale this weekend, with an extra 5% taken off any purchase of ten or more boxes of Pocky (cases included). It’s a great time to score some delicious Pocky!