Thursday, May 28, 2009

Japanese Women Doing It for Themselves

Every so often an article such as this one from the Japan Times pops up telling us that women hold the true power in Japan despite what it may look like on the surface. Earlier this month a group of women entrepreneurs gathered together for the J300 Event in Tokyo put on by a firm that operates the (Woman President) networking site.

The women participating numbered 360 and were from all over Japan; I wouldn’t be surprised if this constituted every female entrepreneur in the country. Statistics in the Japanese business world for women continue to be dismal: by 2007 the 160,000 Japanese women in managerial jobs represented only 9.2 percent of managers in Japan. Europe and the U.S. boast a percentage rate of around 30 percent, which still isn’t great, but leaps and bounds above Japan. Japanese women face old school traditions in Japan that are difficult to overcome. It is a place where there’s lots of lip service, but change happens at a snail’s pace.

Still, you have to admire the spirit of these women and hope they can succeed at spreading the word that Japanese companies just might be able to get out of their slump if they hire more women business managers. Women, they say, are better at understanding customer needs, which is imperative in making firms successful.

So, ladies, gambatte!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hey, Baby, What's Your Blood Type?

I found it very strange the first time I was asked my blood type when I was in Japan. And my questioner’s shocked reaction seemed even stranger when I said I wasn’t sure. In Japan, not knowing your blood type is akin to not knowing your birthday.

The Associated Press
has reported that in 2008, four of the top-selling books in Japan concerned how blood type determines personality. Blood type in Japan is like horoscopes here (and they are popular in Japan as well). I do admit to believing in horoscopes, especially when they say something flattering about my personality or that a convergence of planets will bring good fortune to my bank account. And grouping peoples’ personalities by date of birth in roughly 30-day increments seems somewhat plausible, though I know there’s much more to it than that. But basing personality on only four blood types? That seems a bit farfetched.

In Japan dating agencies offer compatibility tests based on blood types and some kindergartners are even divided up in their classes based on B, A, O, or AB. Purchasers of condoms in vending machines can also choose according to their blood type. Prime Minister Aso saw fit to state on his official Internet profile that he is A. There is also a term for blood type harassment, bura-hara.

Now I find that there was a reason to feel a bit creepy about all this blood type business. Turns out Japan’s 1930s militarist government imported this theory from Nazi race ideology in order to breed better soldiers. This idea was later put to rest and the blood type craze went into decline until the 1970s when new books popped up promoting the theory as a way to foster one’s best talents and make for better relationships--much like horoscopes--instead of a way to judge or rank others.

The books that are so popular today claim that blood types are not definitive, and are only an indicator of personality tendencies. The practice, however, is so widespread that despite repeated warnings, many employers still will ask an applicant’s blood type during job interviews, oblivious that it could lead to discrimination.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Promoting Japan's Pop Culture Arts

The Black Ship reports that Japan’s Cultural Affairs Agency will construct a 10,000-square meter art center in Tokyo that will promote Japanese manga, anime and game software. With an opening scheduled in two to three years, the hope is that the center will become a major tourist attraction for foreign visitors as well as a booster for the country’s pop art industries. No decision has been made yet on the location, but Odaiba is a possibility.

This announcement comes at the same time as the construction of the 20,000 square foot NEW PEOPLE destination spot building at 1746 Post Street (pictured) in San Francisco’s Japantown, which aims to celebrate, preserve and foster Japanese pop culture. I guess I have to be thankful that VIZ Media is headquartered in my hometown of San Francisco because this center could have easily popped up in Los Angeles or New York. It is the brainchild of Seiji Horibuchi, the VIZ CEO, and $15 million has been invested in it so far. The plan is to eventually expand globally.

NEW PEOPLE will include a cinema specializing in Japanese film, a cafe, various Harajuku-type shops, and an art gallery. It opens on August 15 and I can’t wait!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Invasion of the Herbivorous Ladylike Japanese Man

Japan is a land of extreme trends and buzz words that can overtake the country in minutes and just as quickly disappear to make way for the next. But this is an interesting one and I think I even mentioned a reference to this syndrome in a previous post. The Japan Times documents a new trend that has culminated in a report from the Infinity market-research company called, “Herbivorous Ladylike Men Are Changing Japan” (Soshokukei Danshi Ojo-man Ga Nippon wo Kareu).

This new generation of Japanese men worry about their weight, are less competitive about careers, and are so close with their mothers that they take shopping trips together. The “ojo-man” (ladylike man) lacks any interest in dating young women or having any relationships; his sex life is limited to “self-help” toys and Internet porn. He is also fierce in his commitment to frugality and wouldn’t be caught dead without his coupons and frequent-shopper discount cards. Infinity claims that 60 percent of today’s Japanese men aged 20-34 fall into this category.

Exaggerated? Most probably. But ever since I first was in Japan I was struck by how there seemed to be no stigma against the gentler, more “feminine” man. I remember hearing complaints from Western women viewers of the Toni Collette movie Japanese Story (2003) such that they couldn’t understand the appeal of male lead Gotaro Tsunashima because he was “too feminine.” He was just a regular cute Japanese guy to me and I thought he was perfect for the role. The big, muscular, football player types that so many American women seem to go for never appealed to me. While Japan certainly has its more “masculine” movie and pop stars, there are certainly just as many ojo-men from which to choose.

Of course, sociologically, if this trend is true along with the trend of women purposely remaining unmarried and without kids, then the land of the rising sun is due to become a lot less crowded in the coming generations. But it could also point to a growing tolerance toward less strict gender roles for both sexes.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Japanese Girls Gotta Rock

The Guardian reports on the predominance of women in the J-rock scene, which can seem paradoxical when thinking of the strict gender roles associated with Japan. As a female musician I was always struck by the abundance of women musicians and singers in the Japanese music business, even during the time when there was a dearth of women heard on American radio. To this day I’d say that the most popular performers are female and Japan was even one of the few to embrace that classic American all-girl band, The Runaways, who were pretty much ignored in the States.

The article goes on to say that Japan’s culture of karaoke is an important influence on female J-rock because of all the great female singers from before, thereby placing a high importance on vocal melodies. I couldn’t agree more. And maybe this partly explains my long attraction to J-pop and enka and my many favorites from the days of Akina Nakamori and Sayuri Ishikawa on up to Namie Amuro, Hikaru Utada, Ayumi Hamasaki and now Yui, whom I’ve just been introduced to by a number of fine J-pop bloggers.

I’m not ready to say that this pure freedom of expression we see in Japanese women pop and rockers is something that can change a society but, perhaps, little by little, they are contributing as empowering role models to other young women.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Crazy for Kanji

When I first started studying Japanese years ago, I became immersed in learning the written language, from hiragana and katakana (the phonetic language systems) to the actual characters—the kanji. And Celeste Duncan, the protagonist in my forthcoming novel, Love in Translation, also discovers an inexplicable connection to kanji once she finds herself in Tokyo.

No one, though, is as obsessed with kanji as Eve Kushner, a Berkeley-based freelance writer and blogger, who is a certifiable kanji addict. But instead of just sitting in her attic deconstructing kanji all day, she has channeled her obsession into an entertaining and delightful book called Crazy for Kanji: A Student’s Guide to the Wonderful World of Japanese Characters, published by Stone Bridge Press. Crazy for Kanji is filled with interesting facts, photos of kanji in action, cultural clues, games, puzzles and more.

Whether you are a serious student of Japanese or simply fascinated with these characters for both their beauty and practicality, you will find Crazy for Kanji a fun and engrossing read.

Eve stopped by to answer a few questions.

How did you become interested in kanji? Why Japanese? Why not Chinese characters, from which kanji developed?

I was forced to study several languages as a child, and I hated it (because I hate anything that I'm forced to do), but as an adult I've discovered that I love learning languages. In fact, the whole reason I started studying languages as an adult is that I went to hear the writer Rita Mae Brown speak at Black Oak Books in Berkeley. When a woman asked for advice on becoming a writer, Brown advised her to learn as many languages as possible, explaining that when you see connections between Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, English, and so forth, lights and bells will go off for you, and it will enrich your understanding of English immeasurably. After I heard that, I decided to study a different language every semester until I'd learned a little bit about 20 or 30 of them!

I studied Spanish for four years after that, and found that Rita Mae Brown was right. After Spanish, I tackled Japanese, because I'd felt fascinated with Japan since age 13, when I traveled to Japan and China with my family. We spent very little time in Japan and much more of the time in China. The contrast between the two was striking, because at that time (1981), Japan was quite advanced technologically (much more so than the United States), whereas China was definitely not. I fell in love with Old Japan—with the small bridges and gardens and all the daintiness of shoji screens and temples.

Then in college I took a course where we covered the "greatest hits" of Japanese and Chinese literature in 10 weeks, and it was the Japanese literature (Kawabata, Tanizaki, Mishima) that moved me in particular.

And then you moved on to formally studying Japanese?

Yes. In the late '90s, I discovered the now-defunct literary magazine Japanophile. I was trying to find my niche as a freelance writer, and they did eventually publish several of my articles. As I began to develop the idea of myself as a writer who covered Japanese topics, it became apparent that I should learn to speak the language.

When I started to tackle Japanese in 2001, I was hardly a natural at it, but I kept going. In our third course, we started kanji, and I hated every single bit of the way we learned it. I had no idea why we needed to write words with these complicated characters. Up till then, we'd written words phonetically, and I didn't understand why that was no longer enough. Again, because I felt forced to learn kanji without knowing why, I initially resented it. It didn't help that the teacher seemed to feel no affection for kanji at all. In Japan and elsewhere, kanji are so often treated as bitter medicine to "swallow" (via rote, joyless copying and memorization), and that was the feeling she passed on to us.

Then I came across a copy of Michael Rowley's Kanji Pict-o-Graphix, and everything changed for me. It's not that I responded to the graphic mnemonics; I'm not a very visual person, so I didn't even really see them. But he showed what each component in a character meant, and I found this fascinating. Little bits of meaning could add up to larger bits of meaning. I began making complex diagrams, where I noted the breakdowns of characters, taking these analyses further and further until I'd arrived at components that simply couldn't get any smaller. Because kanji utterly mystified me, I felt determined to study them down to their tiniest specks, thereby gaining some kind of control or mastery. (Ha! No such thing with kanji!)

And this turned into an obsession, which turned into love, and before I knew it, I came to love the very thing I used to hate!

How did Crazy for Kanji come to be published?

I met Peter Goodman, the publisher of Stone Bridge Press, in the late '90s when he was selling books at the Solano Stroll street festival in Berkeley. I fell in love with several of his books and with the whole idea of what he was doing. Soon after I met him, I profiled him for the East Bay Express and Japanophile. I also reviewed some of his books for various publications and we continued to keep in touch.

Friends who knew of my kanji obsession were always telling me I should write a book about kanji and I began to seriously think about it. I approached Peter and he told me to write up a proposal. Much to my delight, it intrigued him, and he instructed me to go in particular directions, such as explaining the basics of how kanji work and even writing about the use of characters in China, Korea, and Taiwan. After a lot of hard work, Crazy for Kanji came to fruition.

Do you have a favorite kanji?

I'm really crazy about 意—pronounced “i” (as ee, in English). For one thing, I think it's adorable. It reminds me of an upright animal, complete with a curving tail. I blogged about this at, so the explanation and images there should give you a better idea of what I mean. Also, since 意 means "heart, mind, thought, meaning, sense," it factors into words about consciousness, intentions, thoughts, and feelings, all of which fascinate me.

What's up next for you on the kanji horizon?

I'll definitely keep blogging about kanji, and that occupies a huge amount of my life.

I'm less clear about my kanji explorations in the long term. As long as I keep blogging, I'll eventually cover many of the Joyo kanji (the approximately 2000 characters used in daily life in Japan). Without killing the spontaneity and fun I now feel whenever I investigate kanji, it might make sense to be more goal-oriented about covering the Joyo, so eventually I will have written essays about all of them, creating a kind of Joyo encyclopedia with essays on each character and its etymology and compounds.

And, last but not least, what is your favorite Japanese food?

I'm a tea addict, so I love green tea ice cream. When it's done right, it's tantalizingly full of possibilities. It seems to hint at something, but ... what? That "something" is always just around the corner, luring me on.

Be sure to visit Eve at her Web site and at her Kanji Curiosity blog. Eve is participating in a number of events in the San Francisco Bay Area throughout 2009, including appearances at the Asian Art Museum and the Soko Gakuen Language School in San Francisco. Get more details here.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Japanese Sweet Tooth reports on a new shop in Beverly Hills that’s set to give the cupcake phenomenon some competition. Fulfilled sells imagawayaki, a Japanese pastry often found in Japan at street fairs, which is traditionally filled with sweet adzuki beans. Japanese-American proprietor, Susumu Tsuchihashi, has turned this on its head by making imagawayaki with names like Karaoke Kitty and Harajuku Monkey and filling them with delights like white chocolate, nutella, and banana. A savory treat is the Spicy Samurai, filled with pepper jack cheese, cilantro, chicken apple sausage, and green chili.

These aren’t to be confused with the amazing crepes I first had in Harajuku back in the day and which have found their way to a few places in the U.S. When I mentioned imagawayaki to my husband he said that it was basically taiyaki, a pastry made to look like a fish that we’ve been able to get for years at May’s Coffee Shop in San Francisco’s Japantown. Downtown San Mateo also boasts its own post-modern taiyaki place called Sweet Breams, which specializes in chibi (mini) taiyaki.

I’m an o-manju girl myself, but I’d like to try this imagawayaki the next time I’m in LA—right after I finish downing a Sprinkles cupcake.