One complex subject in Japan is that of gift giving. The Japanese are very much into exchanging gifts, and the goodwill that it creates provides a valuable social “lubrication” that makes all manner or personal and business relationships work more smoothly. In July and December there are two gift-giving seasons, when people will give gifts to thank teachers or others in the community to thank them for their past assistance. Predictably, these specially made gift boxes containing anything from coffee to cooking oil to laundry detergent are often passed on to others, with some gifts changing hands many times before they’re actually used. This tradition of giving gifts exists in the business world too — employees give gifts to their bosses right before bonus time, and companies exchange gifts too, thanking each other for their business. (This year we gave V-8 style canned vegetable juice to companies we have relationships with in Japan.) Incidentally, if you ever come to Japan, it’s probably a good idea to bring some items to give out as gifts to people you might encounter here — something representative of wherever you’re from, or even a carton of cigarettes from your home country, always a popular item. (The smoking staff of J-List says that Newport Menthols are a good brand, since they’re not sold here.)
There are four writing systems used in Japanese: hiragana and katakana, two syllable-based systems used to express Japanese and foreign words, respectively; the Roman alphabet, the “unofficial” writing system that everyone needs in order to function in society; and kanji, the complex ideographs imported from China through Korea in the 6th century A.D. You need to be able to read around 2000 kanji to be considered literate in Japan (not as bad as it sounds), and the government maintains a list of official “general use kanji” (常用漢字) that are used in books, newspapers, etc. One problem the Japanese are grappling with now is a sharp reduction in the ability to write kanji in the younger generations, because of devices like computers and “keitai” (portable) phones bring up the correct kanji for you automatically. As email and other forms of 21st Century-style communication change the daily lives of Japanese, the number of people who are unable to write kanji well is going up.
I’m writing this at Narita Airport right now, as my wife and I wait for our kids to arrive from the U.S. Our kids are quite interesting in how they handle speaking English and Japanese, and I’ve always loved observing their bilingual language growth. My daughter, who is very “going my way” (as the Japanese say, meaning that does things her own way), switches from Japanese to English mode almost the moment she arrives in the U.S., never letting something like not knowing what a certain word means get in the way of communication. She’s extremely sociable in both languages, and makes friends with kids she’s just met, something that’s quite rare in Japan. My son is much more cautious in his approach to English, and if he’s not sure of the correct usage of a certain vocabulary word or grammar point, he will usually choose to say nothing, which makes people assume he can’t speak English even though he reads English at one grade above his current level. The lesson is clear: fear of making a mistake is the bane of the language learners, and it’s far better to say the wrong thing than nothing.
Remember that J-List has posted the first of our incredible onslaught of 2007 Japanese calendars, a near-the-end-of-the-year tradition here going back to the very beginning a decade ago. We’ve got dozens of fantastic large-format calendars that are sold exclusively in the Japanese market on the site for you, with even more great calendars posted today, including views of Mt. Fuji, calendars that look like traditional kakejiku scrolls, beautiful women in kimonos, traditional Japanese rooms, fantastic art calendars by artists like Ichiro Tsuruta, and more. Our calendars make great gifts, too, for yourself or anyone else. Browse our selection now!