Tuesday, March 24, 2009

To Work or WBC, and Fake Swingers

Everyone at work seems totally distracted, and I don't think it's because the two owners (also brothers) had an escalated altercation that broke into fisticuffs last night (true story).

No, I would have to say that it's because about half the people currently in the office are closely huddled in front of the tv by the entrance watching the World Baseball Classic. They told me that yesterday Japan beat the US in the semis, but personally I could care less... I'm more interested in the NCAA tournament, even if my team's already out. If you don't care about either I won't hold it against you. As much as I'd like to ignore it, I guess it really is true that Japanese love their baseball, and even more so than they do soccer.

This brings to mind something only tangentially related but that has always struck me as funny - the fake swing. Whether it be a fake golf swing or a bat swing, you will see people doing practice swings all over the place here, from the office to the train platform. Don't believe me? Well there's even a poster about it. This guy has an umbrella, but you'll see it more often than not totally empty-handed, and in addition to the baseball/golf swing you may see a budding pitcher practicing his curve ball depending on who you watch.

What prompts this you might ask? A trip to any school sports club will provide the answer. I first ran into this back as an exchange student when a friend joined the tennis club - he told me that for beginners they actually have you just swing at air 100 times to practice your form before you're "ready" to step up and hit a ball! Who knows how long it'll take you hitting a ball before you're ready to actually take on an opponent, maybe years.

You may be thinking that this happens in baseball practices all over the world, and indeed my capoeira instructor harps about form when we practice as well. But if you think this and you haven't seen Japanese people practice then you don't know what I'm talking about - they can just practice swinging for hours without playing a real match or scrimmage, which to me is like making a cake and then not eating it. They are obsessed with proper form and will take it to the utmost extreme. I don't know if their desire for perfection before they even get started is admirable or masochistic, but at times I think it's a little from column A and a little from column B. It'd certainly take all the fun out of sports to me. I guess it's better than having them read a book about how to hit a ball, but I still think the best way to practice hitting a ball is to... hit a ball. With someone, preferably in a situation somewhat gamelike. Call me a purist. :P

Heading home!

Ok well I haven't made any official announcements on here yet, so for those of you that don't know I'll be back home next month for 3 whole weeks! The dates are April 14th to May 4th, so mark your calendars and stop by to say hi.

It's so great getting home to see people... although I must admit that I think a month or so of 'home' is about all I could take before I'm ready to come running back to Japan.

Monday, March 23, 2009

English Company Names in Japan

Ok in hindsight this sounds rather snide and ranty, but I still think it's a valid question... maybe I'm just a tad bitter lately, so just let me get it out of my system and I'll get back to talking about pretty flowers in no time. :P

So I'm sitting in my office, and listening to the guy next to me make a phone call - rather mundane occurrence, really. What stands out about this is that just about anytime someone from my current work environment introduces themselves as from our company they invariably have to repeat the name several times. Are our phones broken? Do I work in an office full of low-talkers? No, it's because our name is in English - not only that, but it also includes a 'v' in the name, which the majority of Japanese people can't even pronounce.

Actually since I'm in a venture capital office, we actually have 4 companies under the same roof, and all 4 of them are named in English - I have to bite my lip sometimes to keep from laughing when one guy sitting across from me calls people as his company name has the word 'primitive' in it... try getting your average salaryman to pronounce that one! I think his record was about 15 seconds trying to get the guy on the other end to understand this one word. At least the name of the one company has words that you can easily explain in Japanese (時のタイム, "time as in [time]"), but still how eschew is their logic that an English name that their clientele can't even pronounce is a good idea?

Don't get me wrong, I understand the general concept: English is cool because it's foreign and exotic. This concept has sold kanji t-shirts and tattoos in English-land, and holds equally as true for English in Japan as I'm sure a quick search of "Engrish" will tell you. So ok, anyone who gets a tattoo they can't read is an idiot, but at least with t-shirts I can understand that maybe appearance is more important to some people than clarity of message is. I mean afterall, it's just a watered down version of fashion, right?

But we're talking company names for a marketing firm here, which should be all about name recognition. That's all well and fine that you've got a nice, spiffy English name that looks all cool with it's Romanized characters and bold font, but how recognizable is a name that the majority of your customer base can't even pronounce? The sad thing here is that I'm not even totally sure that it does negatively effect their name recognition, would just boggle my mind even more. I'm sure many Japanese would think it's just as acceptable as a 5-year old girl wearing a shirt that reads "I'm a MILF", which I've also seen. And what makes it even funnier is that I guarantee you that the person who came up with the company name (in this isolated case, at least) couldn't pronounce the name and didn't know what it meant when he made the name as the only other 2 people I know of in the office that speak any English at all came here long afterwards - this one was obviously plucked out of a dictionary and picked because it sounded cool.

Yet another unfortunate case where oft times Japan falls into the trap of form before function.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Cherry Blossoms: Millenium Edition


Ok this is the real deal: Japanese people do not mess around when it comes to the sakura. Every year I am continuously impressed with the fantastic weather coverage of the sakura blooming schedule online, and this year is no exception. I checked online for the peak blooming time around the country (which is always meticulously followed and documented), and found the next latest and greatest in superfluously detailed applications to more than fulfill your sakura quotient - the Sakura Simulator 2009 shown above.

The Sakura Simulator gives you a visual representation of not only when peak blossom is anywhere in the country with a quick search, but also what the country or any area you select will look like on on any day from now through May, which is when the last of the sakura up in Hokkaido will be done. As you can see above, March 29th will be a beautiful day to be in Japan... or atleast the half of it up through about Tochigi or so.

My plans this year are to have the obligatory hanami in Yoyogi at least once, hit up the Kanamara festival again, and check out some night blossoms over at Yasukuni Shrine. I love this time of year in Japan!!!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

More PS1 gamers than PS3 gamers?

Ok, I don't play video games half as much as I used to, but I saw this poll over at WhatJapanThinks and just saw it as a sign of colossal fail on the part of Sony in the gaming world.

The poll showed a number of interesting things - 1st, as usual Xbox is basically non-existent in Japan, but this time around Nintendo is totally pwning Sony, selling twice as many Wiis as the PS3. After following up the PS2 which dominated Nintendo's Gamecube, that's a huge turnaround in Nintendo's favor. This round was Sony's to lose, and they apparently did so with gusto.

What shocked me about the poll though was the numbers of people playing older systems - people still using PS1 and even SNES still outnumber those who have bought a PS3! Two words: you fail. The public has spoken, and the average person apparently doesn't care if games get any prettier. Nintendo was right - a more interactive gaming experience is more attractive than graphics ever could be... to the common public at least. Real gamers'll buy new stuff no matter what just to get the newest games, but then I haven't put myself in that category for years now. I still play SNES games (on an emulator), and the last system I bought myself was a handheld: Nintendo DSi. The last home system I bought myself... PS2 maybe? Had a Gamecube c.o. a friend who knows who he is but didn't buy it myself, and I've thought of buying a Wii but just don't feel like spending the money.

Now of course these are numbers for Japan only and have nothing to do with the US or anywhere else, but still interesting. I'd also be interested to see a heads up of home consoles against handhelds, or even just a similar poll on handhelds that you could compare to this home console one.

For another fact you may not know, the former president of Nintendo was the richest man in Japan last year at 7.8billion USD on the strength of Wii sales, but thanks to the shit economy has been downgraded to be worth a mere 4.5billion and 3rd richest.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The exporting of Japanese culture

In doing some researching for my job (for the moment), I've noticed what to me at least is a disturbing although not entirely startling trend.

It started with nihonshu, which you probably know as sake. Looking at the market and export numbers it's gained quite a bit of popularity abroad lately, especially in the US as a trendy drink that's more "cultured." It's caught on easier in the US than Europe since the latter is more strongly dominated by wine culture, but is still seeing more and more growth in larger cities around the world such as NYC, London, Seoul and Shanghai. France is pretty slow to catch onto this because they are still firmly ensconced in their own culture of cheese and wine apparently. Export figures have steadily risen on the strength of the market in the US doubling in the past 5 years and tripling over the past 10.

Contrast this with nihonshu sales in Japan, which have fallen steadily over the same periods. The younger Japanese sees nihonshu as too old school and out of fashion, and even the older folks are starting to shift more towards drinking shochu, the other indigineous drink of Japan. It has Chinese/Korean roots and is actually marketed as soju (Korean name) in the US, but local production of shochu in Japan is high and rising, while at the same time more and more people are leaving the nihonshu up on the shelf.

The most important names in discussions of sake these days also probably aren't what you'd expect. Some discussions I ran across of sake have foreign expert John Gauntner as the big hope for Japanese sake brewers to stay afloat - the thought is that for domestic sales to pick back up, the only way is to go international and show young Japanese how much the rest of the world loves nihonshu, meaning that it's ok for them to like it again too (translation: foreign = cool in Japan). There's also Philip Harper, a Briton who has become the first foreign sake brew master... the fate of sake may progressively be less and less in the hands of Japanese.

Then again today I was looking up numbers on bonsai - you know, the little trees that Mr. Miyagi made in Karate Kid. Like shochu this too finds its roots outside of Japan (China in this case), but Japanese made noticeable adjustments that set them apart from their original counterparts. Anyway, apparently producers of bonsai and related products in Chiba were really hurting as local interest waned, but then about 5 years ago exports out to Hong Kong and China especially but also the EU really started picking up. Exports doubled in 2007 and have grown over tenfold since the beginning of 2005. Yet again, exports step in to fill the local void in the market for a Japanese cultural staple.

I guess I could also throw sumo in there as well, in which foreigners seem to grab quite a bit of the news lately... a European won the Emperor's Cup for the first time last year, and the whole sport is a flutter after a slew of wrestlers get caught smoking marijuana (2 of the 3 I remember caught were foreign). I don't see how there could be sumo without foreigners now or anytime in the near future.

So what's it all come down to? Japanese culture isn't popular enough in Japan, so exporting it looks to be it's only hope for survival. Will it take the rest of the world to show Japan that its culture is actually worth preserving? I hope not, but if so I'll do my part. Heightened appreciation for traditional Japanese culture is good, I just wish there was more of it amongst Japanese as well.