Hello again from Japan, where, when two people say the same thing at the same time, they’re then supposed to shout “Happy ice cream!”
There’s no doubt about it: Japan has had a fascination with the West ever since the appearance of Admiral Perry’s “Black Ships” in 1852, and that enigma continues to be a part of the Japanese psyche to this day. But while Japan has often had a uniquely close relationship with the United States, either through trade or as a result of the Occupation, the continent of Europe seems to carry a bit more mystique. You can see this at work when you take a look at the world of Japanese tarento or “talents,” a catch-all word for actors, comedians and other famous TV-types. While television personalities like Hikaru Utada or Yu Hayami who can speak English fluently get a lot of “wow points” with fans, there seems to be a hierarchy at work, with Japanese bilingual in languages other than English getting more respect. When actress Kumiko Goto married French F1 racer Jean Alesi, people expected her career to fade, but she’s more popular than ever, appearing occasionally in commercials or variety shows speaking French (oo la la). Recently retired soccer star Hidetoshi Nakata was known for wowing fans by appearing on Italian TV and speaking the language fluently, which immediately put him at the top of the worldwide pantheon of Japanese athletes. Sometimes linguistic bridges of understanding are built closer to home, as when Tsuyoshi Kusanagi of the long-running SMAP comedy/ singing group learned Korean and built a comedy career for himself on the other side of the Sea of Japan.
American television studios have found a great market for their products in Japan, with hit shows like 24, Prison Break and CSI: Miami scoring big with viewers, who watch them on pay satellite channels or NHK, or rent them one disc at a time at the local rental shop. My wife seems to be leading the charge, watching virtually every show that’s released here, coming back from the rental shop with 5-6 discs every time I turn around. Sometimes I watch along with her, giving silent thanks for the Japanese subtitles on the screen, which keep me from having to try to explain difficult words to her in Japanese. The shows are popular, but just as with fans around the world watching animation from Japan, there are cultural issues raised. For example, in my wife’s current favorite, Desperate Housewives, the subject of marriage councilors come up quite a bit, but Japan is a country where the concept of telling your problems to a therapist is an alien one, and I’m sure there’s more than a little viewer confusion at times.
For the past few years, Japan has been engaged in an experiment to take some of the pressure out of its famed educational system, switching to what is called yutori kyoiku or “unhurried education.” The idea has been to ratchet back Japan’s achievement-focused educational system and provide a broader, less stressed experience for children. Some of the reforms are being rolled back, however, as Japan falls further and further behind other nations in areas of education where it once reigned supreme. Whereas Japan used to be ranked near the top in math and science, it’s now somewhere around 18th place, being easily bested by countries like South Korea and India. That’s why my daughter’s summer vacation ended a week earlier than normal, because school officials are reacting to the poor educational performance of students by increasing the time spent in school. I certainly hope that the recent trends can be reversed.
J-List makes dozens of anime, manga, cosplay, fashion, toy and other magazines available to you through our popular “reserve subscription” system. Just sign up, and we’ll send you the new issue of the magazine(s) you want, until you tell us to stop, and credit card, check or money order or Paypal are accepted. Today we’ve added a new reserve magazine, Tokyo Journal, a great quarterly that brings you hard-hitting stories about life, culture and politics in Japan’s largest city. I distinctly remember reading about Aum Shinrikyo and other topical events of the day back in the old days of 1995, so it’s cool that I be able to bring this magazine to people outside of Japan.