Monday, January 31, 2011

Just Another Manga Monday #3

The featured manga this week is called Absolute Boyfriend. It is a six volume series, and a complete shojo! This one is definitely for you, girls.

Absolute Boyfriend stars Riiko, a teenage girl living on her own because her parents are away on business. Like many of us at a time, she is lonely and just wants a boyfriend. She meets a shady character who sends her to a website where she orders and receives a customized doll through a free 3 day trial. He is completely life-like, superhuman and naïve to cultural norms. Missing the return date, she now owes them data for their company or a million dollars. She names the doll Night because he is from the Nightly Lover series. Riiko’s neighbor, Soshi, looks out for her. They fight like cats and dogs, but it is obvious they care for each other.
Throughout the series, Riiko struggles through having an AI robot boyfriend and trying to keep it a secret, figuring out who she loves, surviving bitchy high school girl drama, as well as other twists and turns along the way.

The series is rated T+ for older teen. It has a slightly perverted humor. Example (remember to read from right to left):

It was written by Yuu Watase, creator of Fushigi Yugi (one of my favorite anime series) and it is like a reverse Chobits (very popular anime/manga series in which a boy falls in love with an AI doll named Chii). I would recommend this series if you are looking for a laugh and romance.

Words I Dis/Like #3

Although Japanese is typically considered one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn, the fact that there are katakana-ized nuggets of English scattered throughout can somewhat ease the pain at times. It can be tough to figure out exactly how the katakana works sometimes (New York = ニュヨク, right? Wrong, sucka! New York = ニューヨーク), but once you get the hang of it, it becomes a useful skill when you want to say something in Japanese but lack the vocabulary. Oftentimes just katakana-izing the English word will elicit some degree of understanding.

But there's useful, and then there's asinine. Recently I've been getting into the Twitter scene and following people who tweet in or about Japanese. There's one trend I've seen that has really annoyed me for some reason. People using "なう." Allow me to explain for a moment. "なう" is hiragana, the Japanese alphabet that is used to spell Japanese words. As opposed to katakana, which is used almost exclusively for foreign loan words, or sometimes to add emphasis to a Japanese word (a technique mostly seen in comics). The pronunciation of "なう" is the same as "now." For a while, when I saw this popping up, I was stumped. I thought to myself "Wow, that looks and sounds like 'now,' but it's in I must be missing something." But the answer eluded me, until I did a search and found out the truth. "なう" means "now." But why is it written in hiragana? Why?! Because it looks different? Cool? Because it confuses people who aren't in the know?


Have you encountered this phenomenon? Have you used なう? If you have any insights, please share! Help me move beyond my hatred!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Lonely Japan: The Train

This is part two of a series written by a friend of mine. You can read part 1 here.

On the train I managed to secure a seat (rush hour had passed at this point) at the edge of the bench. This is the choicest of seats on the train, as it not only limits your exposure to other human beings but also allows you to sleep against the metal railings that bookend the benches. Sleeping on the train after, or while, drinking is quite dangerous. Usually ends up with you at the end of the line somewhere in the sticks being woken up by a man in white gloves who only speaks the incomprehensible dialect of Japanese men over 50. I was not interested in sleeping, or meeting the man in the white gloves, so I made sure to not slouch too much.

Across from me were a mother and her child. The child (believe it was a girl) was probably around three or four and was crawling all over the seat and her mother, who was sitting with her eyes pointed directly at the handbag in between her feet. I watched the little girl maneuver around, avoiding a series of missed head injury opportunities, until she became aware of my presence. She stopped immediately and stared straight at me, expressionless. I smiled at her. I also tried to wave, but my hands were occupied with their important chu-hi holding task so it was more of a “can-shake” than a wave. The girl giggled, and I managed to spill some liquid on my jeans. The mother must not have pleased, however, and without looking up from the ground picked up her daughter and quickly shuffled down to the other end of the train car. Maybe I should have shaved, would have made me look more “hip-bar owner” drunk than “this guy probably talks to stray cats” drunk.

The newer trains have little monitors above the doors to each car, and they are usually good for a few minutes diversion. I looked up at the one closest to me. There was some kind of kanji riddle (maybe it was a joke?) that I couldn’t fully understand. The animal/creature on the screen thought it was hilarious so it must have been funny. Next came the train system status report. A few of the lines were delayed due to accidents. I’m not really sure what kind of accidents these are but they can’t be too bad if they only delay the trains a few minutes, right? Only accidents I was familiar with involved cars driving off the road into snow drifts, and I think the delay was more than five minutes. I didn’t think about accidents much longer thanks to a pretty lady wearing what looked like a rain jacket-dress presenting the weather. She smiled at me, told me it was going to be cold (but not too cold) and that there might be some clouds somewhere in the next week. Good to know. Time to get off the train.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Don't lack the (financial) discipline!

For someone like me, owing tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, working in Japan has its advantages. The exchange rate has been quite favorable for a while now, with the the dollar valued at only around 80-85 yen in recent months. Compare that to the standard $1 = 100 yen formula that for years most American ex-pats have adopted for simple mental accounting calculations. Small wonder it's been relatively easy to keep up with my payments.

I find, however, that the nature of Japanese currency also helps me save. One of the easiest ways to save money, I find, is to collect coins. When I first arrived in Japan, I was inundated with coins. In America, you have four standard denominations: pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. In Japan, though, six are used: 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500-yen pieces. So as you might imagine, you get a lot of change. This is especially true considering that Japan is still a mostly cash-based society. Credit cards aren't the norm. What can one do but get an adequately large jar?

Once I realized the futility of trying to spend all my coins, I got a couple jars. First, I decided not to spend 500 yen pieces unless absolutely necessary. That means every time I spend less than 1000 yen (the smallest bill denomination), unless I'm paying with small change (rare), my change includes one 500 yen piece. As soon as I get home, this is dumped in a jar. Over the course of about half a year, I managed to save about 120,000 yen this way (almost $1,500). It's roughly the same as never spending $5 bills.

If you're looking to save some money and maybe want to challenge yourself, I highly recommend this practice. Get a jar or some other container and start putting aside all your 500 yen pieces (or $5 bills). You can do this indefinitely, but it also works well if you want to save up for a certain period of time in order to buy something. A friend of mine saved for about half a year and collected enough to buy himself a MacBook that he'd been wanting.

It takes a bit of discipline, but after a while it will become habit. Now I cringe a little inside whenever I see someone spending a 500 yenner, no joke. I'm loathe to use them, and don't do so unless I'm in a pinch with no other cash.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The "Cool Japan" Delusion

There's a recent "Views from the Street" at the Japan Times online asking the question "Can selling 'cool Japan' save the ailing economy and help avert a demographic disaster?"

First of all, the "Cool Japan" campaign, if it can be called a campaign, is a move to promote Japanese culture abroad as hip, or "cool" as the kids say these days. While I might argue that it the branding of Japan as "cool" has been relatively unsuccessful, as I believe many more people would associate Japan with words like "technological," "exotic," or "strange," there is no denying that the spread of some elements of "cool" Japanese culture around the world has enjoyed more than modest success. Anime, manga, video games, and Japanese pop music have spread to many countries, although they thrive particularly among those members of "geek culture," as noted quite some time ago by Emily Leach of Asian Week. Still, I don't mean to assert here that Japan isn't "cool." What I do mean to assert is that the whole notion of "cool Japan" relating to Japan's economic woes is flawed.

Cool Japan is a red herring. Japan's stagnant economy can be traced back to the 1990's and its accrual of debt and fiscal deficits (Sound familiar? If America makes it out of the current recession, it will succeed where Japan has failed). Japan's economic problems cannot be saved by some giant advertising campaign. And they will be severely worsened, possibly to the point of collapsing the national economy, within the next 50 years. It has nothing to do with image. It has to do with individual behavior and national policy.

As Tornadoes at As I see Japan...from LA has been pointing out in recent posts, Japan is suffering from population decline. Not only that, but Japan's population is aging. This means that as the years pass, there will be less people working and more people retiring. Eventually there won't be enough taxes coming in to pay for all the "free" health care and welfare that is required.

There are two possible solutions:

(1) Japanese people need to have more children. This is the easiest way to increase the population and inject some new blood into the ailing economy.

(2) Ease immigration policies. This is obviously not happening.

As it is, the "cool Japan" movement, even if it were effective, can only boost tourism and sales of Japanese goods. What it needs to do is encourage immigration to Japan. And the Japanese government needs to allow for this. 

And so will Japan somehow weather the storm, or will it fade away into oblivion (in a cool way, of course)?

Don't ambulate in front of the ambulance!

There are many people who believe Japan to be a deeply polite society. I tend to agree that Japanese people tend to observe etiquette and courtesy to an extent that many Westerners don't. However I also think it's incredibly inaccurate to make such a categorical statement.

On one side, there are many green ex-pats who come over here with stars in their eyes and believe Japan can do no wrong. For some of these people, Japan remains a hidden paradise in a world of otherwise rude, uncultured, (barbaric?) people. They would tell you that in Japan, shop clerks are extremely polite and helpful; that Japanese government offices are way more efficient and friendly; and that bowing beats shaking hands any day!

On the other side, you have the jaded, reminding you that as soon as you get on the train, it's every man, woman, and child for himself; that Japanese people walk with their heads down so you have to move; that some Japanese are so insulated that they are surprised to learn that many foreigners not only can eat Japanese food but quite enjoy it.

What's important is to realize that both sides are right, and both sides are portraying just a part of the big picture. No matter where you go, people are people. Stereotypes are often based on shards of truth, and generalizations exist because in many cases they prove true. These days I find myself wrestling to control my urge to (mostly negatively) generalize, and I think it helps to remind myself of this.

What prompted this reflection?

Source: Wikipedia

Ambulances. Or most specifically, the behavior of people around them. It seems to me that many pedestrians in Japan feel that they exist inside a bubble. Not once, but twice this week I noticed an ambulance coming to an intersection with lights on and sirens blaring, only to have to slow down or stop at the crosswalk because someone was crossing at their own pace, paying no mind to the life-saving vehicle that may have been trying to bring an injured or dying person to the hospital. As soon as I hear an ambulance, it's almost reflex to stop and look around to see where it's coming from so that I don't accidentally saunter into its path. I haven't observed that kind of behavior in Japanese pedestrians.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Strangely Haunting

The text printed on a student's pencil case that I noticed today:

"He got married, bought a house, furnished it, and bought a writing desk and stationery, but found he had nothing to write."

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Lonely Japan: Alcohol

This is the first part of a special series that I hope will span at least several posts. Some time ago, I asked a friend of mine who had lived in Japan for about a year to write about some of his experiences. I knew he had a number of interesting and colorful stories. He agreed, but asked that I post them anonymously, as he's moved past certain behaviors and doesn't want to be associated with everything that is past. Without further ado, here's part one of Lonely Japan.


Lonely Japan
Part 1: Alcohol

The way everyone was talking you’d think it was Siberia cold. Every conversation I overheard involved an abuse of the word “samui” and a discussion of whether it was going to be cold again tomorrow, or how warm their coat was, or whether it was too cold to go to Disneyland. Maybe Japanese people just didn’t have much to talk about. Couldn’t fully understand what they were saying anyway and none of them were talking to me. I wasn’t cold; was already three deep in at that point. The can in my hand was down to the swill so I decided it was time to get off the train.

Don’t remember the name of the station but it was something on the Yamanote-sen, and pretty much every station has what I was looking for: the conbini. Now not every conbini has a very good selection of alcohol. Some are downright terrible. Anything connected to a station or in the shopping mall-like labyrinths connected to them (in my experience, whatever that’s worth) usually had slim pickings. Sometimes you find what I call a  super-conbini” that has an entire wall of alcohol. This was one of those. . .Into the conbini I went and headed straight for the wall of alcohol. First thing to do was to check and see what had the best alcohol to yen ratio. Can’t be drinking 350 yen Ebisu when the night is young and you are a poor exchange student. 500ml Chu-Hai were usually a good bet at around 8% and 250 or so yen, could get close to black out drunk without spending too much. Think I picked two out of the case to make sure I had more than enough.

Girl at the register was probably about 25, but I couldn’t really tell as I was intoxicated and/or I can’t ever really tell. I think our conversation went something like this:

Me: (In Japanese) How are you doing tonight?

Her: (Blank stare) …512 yen please

Me: It’s cold outside tonight right? Good thing my coat is warm.

Her: ...Thank you for coming in!

Me:( While taking my drinks and my change) Thanks for having me.

I wouldn’t want to have talked to me either. Back onto the train I went.

Part 2

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Technically Right

Today it was my turn to give the students in my 2nd-year English class a lecture quiz. I talked to them about the good and bad points of cash and credit cards (something I've been thinking about recently). At the end of every quiz, the students have to take a ten-question quiz.

#8 read: "Do people spend more if they use cash or credit?" This was referring to the fact that studies find that people tend to spend at least 8% more money when using credit cards as opposed to cold, hard cash. One student's answer: "Yes, they do."

He's got me there, but...I'm the teacher, so he's wrong!

Throw the table

An interesting post by Eryk over at This Japanese Life about an unusual arcade game.

"Cho Chabudai Gaeshi" is a game in which you must pound a table. Preferably out of anger. While I've seen this one around, I have yet to try it. Generally I try to stay away from rage-inducing games, and something tells me this one could be bad.

Anyway, check out the post if you have a chance - the video is worth watching if you want to see a video game teacher flip a desk into a group of noisy students. And who doesn't, right?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Keanu CM

What's with that roll? What's with this commercial?

I'd really love to talk to whoever came up with this one.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Just Another Manga Monday #2

This week’s manga is more of a specialty. It is a collector’s series consisting of only two books called The Lady of Pharis. It is a prequel to the Record of Lodoss War manga.

The Record of Lodoss War is a fantasy anime/manga series which focuses on the troubled island of Lodoss, and the struggle to restore balance between the forces of light and darkness. Within ROLW, there is a tale of six great heroes who survived the “The War of Heroes”, a war against demons. The Lady of Pharis series tells this tale of the demon war.

Our heroine is Flaus, leader of the warrior priests. She receives the aid of familiar characters Beld, Wort, Fahn, and Karla. It is entertaining to see these characters young and full of life. Beld is especially amusing as an arrogant mercenary for hire. There are many engaging relationships, such as romance and rivalry. These relationships provide a great background for a ROLW fan, or are simply enjoyable as a one-time read.

There is no rating on the manga, but I would rate it at teen due to violence and nudity. The books primarily consist of battles, so if you enjoy action scenes, you will enjoy them. The nudity is not in bad taste, simply an artistic choice for the demon lord.

If you are a ROLW fan, The Lady of Pharis is a MUST read. If you have never heard of ROLW, The Lady of Pharis is a great starting point which could lead you to Record of Lodoss War: Gray Witch, and Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight.

Friday, January 14, 2011


My experiences with my co-workers over the past two and half years have probably been pretty representative of most people's. There are people I've worked with who I haven't been so fond of, and then there have been those who I've really enjoyed spending time with.

There's this one English teacher at my part-time school who's self-given nickname is Ben, though no one ever really calls him that. He looks to be in his late thirties, but I found out recently that he's the oldest teacher in the department at that school, meaning he's at least in his late fifties. Ben-sensei is probably the most laid back teacher I've met, and he says the damnedest things sometimes. 

Yesterday Maia (the other ALT) and I were sitting at our desks, talking about something of no particular importance, when Ben-sensei turns around (his desk is the row behind ours) and says to us "that bitch is creamy." We laughed and tried to set him straight. "You mean crazy?" He chuckled but didn't answer. For some reason he busted out his new catchphrase twice more that day, but without our correction or explanation. 

I'm still confused as to what a creamy bitch is.

Just another picture of the day 1/14/11: Cheese Cream

Seen at 7-11 for 62 yen (~75 cents). The label reads:

"Jun Hit Cheese is the cheese ice cream made with high quality cheese for the real cheese flavor lover. Savor this full-bodied ice cream with its smooth and mild flavors. Cheese lovers will relish the rich and lingering cheesy taste."

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Some Japanese to brighten up your dead

Errr, day. I was playing some Left 4 Dead 2 a little while ago and came across this Japanese in a particular safe room. Oh boy - let's translate!


That's "Taki...I love you. Goodbye."
A little tricky. I almost translated "Taki" as "I." 俺 (masculine "I") looks somewhat similar to 滝, doesn't it? No? Well, excuuuuse me.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Nutrition Update

One of my most popular posts of last year was the Getting by in Japan guide on nutrition. Well, an addendum has been added with some additional caveats about labeling and serving size information.

Check it out.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Texas 2

Not "Texas Burger 2," mind you.

Tokyo Five and In Sendai recently blogged about the comeback of the Big America burgers - limited time sandwiches like "Texas Burger" and "New York Burger." Well, apparently they were a hit, because round 2 is here. Right now the Texas Burger 2 is up. Mmmmmm....doesn't it look good?

Now I know there are people who get paid to make these pictures look good, but at what point does it become false advertising? Compare the above with this:

Mmmmm....doesn't that look...edible? I don't know where to begin. There was some chili in there, but it was hiding behind what looks like boiled ham, as opposed to the crispy bacon in the former picture. And yes, there was cheese. That was hiding, too. Honestly this thing wasn't bad, but it wasn't good either. And it cost 700 yen and change, meaning I payed almost $10 for that thing plus some fries and 4-5 slips of soda. What a racket.

Now I know there are some who like Japanese portions, and would prefer to go to a McDonalds in Japan, where they can have a small, non-greasy burger. But if I'm going to pollute my body with this garbage, bring on the grease and bring on the beef! I'd pay less for more any day. Can always just, you know... not eat the whole thing...

Monday, January 10, 2011

Just Another Manga Monday #1

The turn of a new year is a good time for reflection. Looking at things here at JADJ, I realize that we're severely lacking on manga and anime-related content. While I'm not a huge fan of the stuff myself, I do acknowledge that there is some good stuff out there, and it can be a tool for learning. Thusly, I've asked my dearest sister, who happens to be a big manga fan, to write a periodic few words on some choice titles that she recommends. And while it's no longer Monday here in Japan as of this posting, it remains the titular time in some parts of the world. The title stands!

My onii-chan asked me to blog a little about manga. Easy enough, since I have so much. I figured I'd start with my favorite- From Far Away (彼方から).

This series is categorized as fantasy shojo (for girls), but I would have to disagree. Usually when you read shojo you get weird sappy stories taking place in a high school starring a teenager who has some quirk like a person on their hand (Midori Days) or a gender change (Ranma 1/2). From Far Away certainly falls into the fantasy genre, but I believe has elements that would appeal to guys as well. True, there is an underlying theme of romance, but there is also much about war, battles and culture.
To set the scene, our heroine Noriko is transported from Japan to a magical world as 'The Awakening'. The Awakening can be used to control the Sky Demon (an evil and powerful force) and therefore every kingdom and evil dude is searching for her. A young warrior named Izark, who just so happens to be the human reincarnation of the Sky Demon, saves her from danger, unaware of her identity. The series develops these characters in an interesting way, showing their relationship change as Noriko learns the foreign language and customs.

If you find yourself interested in science fiction and are looking to read a series that focuses on war tactics in addition to character development, you will enjoy From Far Away.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A New Year's Miracle!

Ok, well not really a miracle. But a little surprise today. I got a whole bunch of 年賀状(nengajou).

Nengajou are New Year's cards that are sent to friends, family, and coworkers every year. They're a lot like Christmas cards in the States, often homemade and featuring pictures of the family. Usually, though, they include an animal in keeping with those of the Chinese zodiac. This year is the year of the rabbit (卯年), so most of the cards sold in stores feature pictures or designs with rabbits.

Since my first year here, I've been writing and mailing them out. It's a big pain in the ass, so many folks have software they use to just type names and addresses and print the cards out.  Cheaters. I think in a future post I'll show you the proper way to write out a nengajou.

Anyhow, this year I only received a handful during the first couple days of the New Year. It's customary to send them out the week before, so that the post office can sort them and hold them to be delivered on New Year's if possible. Felt a little snubbed, to tell the truth. But today I got a bundle of about twice as many cards as I'd received up until now. I know many of them were just sending me cards because I send them one (also customary to send a card to anyone you've received from but neglected...oops!), but ah well.

The pile on the right is what came today. Ignore the clutter in the background!

Some people enjoy collecting the cards, as many have interesting or beautiful designs printed on them. Me, I've never been a big card guy...but I haven't thrown away any yet, and probably will bring them with me when I return to the States.

A little kanji tidbit - the kanji used for the zodiac animals are separate from those normally used for each respective animal. In this case 卯 is used for rabbit, but normally うさぎ is 兔. They're all different. Except for cow (牛). Because cows always have to be difficult.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

JADJ on Facebook

I'm not huge on all these social media - Twitter, Facebook, Maddle (that last one may not be a real thing), but they seem to be all the rage among the kids these days. So I'm trying.

JADJ now has a Facebook page, so please check it out and like it. But only if you really like it. We don't need any liars.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Games, Japan, and Cash or Credit

I've told myself and numerous others that after I finish up in Japan, I'll return home and do my best to find a job unrelated to business. This despite the fact that I majored in Accounting and International Business back in university. I've always had at least a partial interest in money and finance, as far as I can remember.

Source: Wikipedia
Back when I used to play a lot of SNES roms, there was this one game called 大航海時代 II("Age of Discovery II"), in English Uncharted Waters II: New Horizons, which placed the player in the role of one of several selectable captains, each representing a different nationality. Depending on the captain, the main line of quests would differ, but the gameplay options were the same. No matter who you were, rather than follow the main quest to completion, you could always engage yourself in exploration, trading, piracy, privateering, or some combination. Whenever I played, I always found money the most appealing part of the game. As you traveled and time passed in-game, prices for various goods would fluctuate. Additionally, you could choose to capture enemy ships and either add them to your fleet or sell them off.

Back in the early days of MMORPGs, I tried my hand for a while at a game called Ultima Online. Although there were myriad dungeons and locales to explore, and many different skills to build, I found merchanting to be the most enjoyable use of my time. I belonged to a small guild of players with aspirations of growing to be both financially and numerically large and powerful. My friends and I spent hours and hours harvesting materials, crafting them into useful goods, and selling them on automated, player-owned vendors. Although there was a market for extremely rare decorative items, which we would sometimes attempt to find, the real money was to be made in real estate. Although we owned a few properties, I don't think we ever really had enough gold to be seriously buying and selling houses in prime locations. Our members were also an issue. If memory serves, each player could have several characters, but only one house (be it villa, tower, keep, castle, etc). We had such a small number of trustworthy, core members that holding houses for sale would have been an issue. Still, it was my first look at online video game markets driven by people just playing a game.

Similarly, when I played World of Warcraft I found the auction house to be one of those most interesting parts of the game. I was recently reminded of this reading one of Jake's articles over at Debt Sucks, "How Video Games Teach Money Management" (Man, this entry is just jam-packed full 'o links). My main character was a skinner and leatherworker, meaning that when I killed certain monsters or animals, I could take their skins (and sometimes scales) and craft them into armor patches or pieces of leather armor. I would often gather leather, either by skinning it myself or buying it at the auction house, and craft it into armor patches which I would then auction off for a profit. Sometimes the price of leather would jump and I'd make more money selling stockpiled leather than I would making and selling armor patches. It wasn't as profitable a trade as enchanting or smithing, but it was enjoyable for me. Sometimes I would also keep and eye on the prices of ingredients for other professions, and harvest and sell them if the price was high enough and I was capable of gathering them (for any WoW veterans reading this, I frequently farmed motes to make primals).

I find it rather interesting that these online, game economies can have so much real value. Although it would probably be rather difficult to make a living off of such toil, there are people who gather large sums of in-game gold and sell them in the real world for real money. Even independent of that, so many people (myself included) derive such a large amount of satisfaction from sitting around earning virtual money, which for 99% of people has no application outside of the game world.

To reign this rambling post in a little and come back to my original line of thought, although I'm not thrilled by the idea of working in the worlds of accounting or finance right now, there has always been a part of me that finds the workings of markets to be quite fascinating, and I can't deny the satisfaction I get out of making a nice-looking Excel spreadsheet. Perhaps I should think about becoming some sort of entrepreneur, despite the fact that I don't have a product or an idea for one at the moment...

Anyhow, lately I've been trying to renew my interest in money by reading some personal finance blogs. Two that I've come across and would like to recommend are Debt Sucks (previously mentioned) and Punch Debt in the Face. They both have some fascinating reading and a very personal feel, which I find appealing.

Allow me to segue once more. Reading and thinking about personal debt (of which I have a great deal in the form of student loans) brings one thing to mind for many people: credit cards. This got me thinking about one aspect of life in Japan that I have up until now been fairly critical of - the fact that Japan is a cash society. Credit cards are becoming slightly more common, and as such they're are being accepted in more and more places, yet still the norm remains to walk around with the equivalent of several hundred dollars in your wallet and pay in cash. Whipping out a 10,000 yen note (roughly $120 right now) at the convenience store to pay for that pack of gum isn't seen as dangerous or tacky - it's pretty damn normal.

Now Japan has its own financial problems. But perhaps this cash-carrying mentality has shielded them to some degree. I don't claim to be an expert on the topic, but I get the impression most Japanese individuals don't hold much credit card debt. Can't say the same for Americans, on average. I guess there are two sides to every coin.

My New Year's

Here I am, freshly back from spending New Year's in Yamaguchi prefecture (山口県) with Yoshie's family. They were really nice - fed me, took me sightseeing, ferried me back and forth to the train station. Yamaguchi is the western-most prefecture in the Chugoku region, and according to this map I found, the only pink part of Japan.

Image from Wikipedia
It was my first "Japanese" New Year's, as my first year was spent at home, probably sleeping, and last year I went to Tokyo and hung around with foreigners (whee!). It was pretty much what I had heard it would be. On New Year's Eve, we sat down at the kotatsu table and ate a variety of stuff - salad, soba soup, sashimi, etc. It was pretty tasty. Then we watched TV for about five hours. This was my least favorite part of the trip.

See, in Japan there is a popular kind of TV show called "batsu game." I believe the Simpsons parodied it once - the family traveled to Japan and in order to get home again they had to appear on a game show to try to win some money. But once there, the host explained to them that while American gameshows reward success, Japanese ones punish failure. These penalty games are shows in which contestants, who are usually comedians, must try to avoid messing up and being punished. As you can imagine, they fail frequently, and most of the penalties are physical. There's one popular kind, which is what we watched for about five hours, in which the contestants must participate in some tasks without laughing, or they are punished. Sometimes they just sit around and talk, trying to make each other laugh. I kid you not, there were some segments of this show where the comedians were sitting around a table playing with what looked like a Japanese Ken doll, trying to make each other laugh. When they inevitably did, some guys wearing ski masks and fatigues would run in and hit them in the butt with what looked like a hard rubber bat. This was funny for about 30 minutes for me, then got old quickly. 

There was also one part of the show were some guys in black bodysuits would run after them, and if caught they would have to undergo some kind of physical abuse. One penalty was standing under a window and having them put some blunt fish-hook looking implements in their nose while some guy on the second floor reeled. Another was a machine that kicked them in the balls.

I know slap-stick humor is big in Japan, but after a certain point it gets to be a little disgusting. You'd think getting hit in the groin (or even the butt) a few times could cause some permanent damage. But still, people laugh. Maybe if you know the comedians you can better appreciate their reactions (or their punishment). I know I'd like to see SMAP on a batsu game.

Around 11:30 we walked to a nearby shrine and Yoshie and her parents said a prayer and got their fortunes once midnight hit. It was cold, but they had a big bonfire going outside the shrine.
It was a good trip overall - nice experience to have. I think the coolest part of the trip was when we visited this little town where hawks were hanging around waiting for food. Friggin hawks, sitting around like crows or seagulls. People would buy bread at nearby stores and throw pieces into the air, and the hawks would swoop by and grab them. That's where I saw the most badass thing, possibly ever: Yoshie's father ripped off a piece of bread, held it above his head, and just looked at us cooly as a hawk flew by and grabbed it out of his hand.

So it was a good experience, but man, Japanese-style New Year's can be a challenge if you're either not big on Japanese food or not big on Japanese TV.