Sunday, December 27, 2009

Learning Otaku Culture

I think it's obvious that I have an affinity for Japanese culture. The history, language, customs, and literature are all things I've studied and continue to enjoy. I love their food and listen to their music and read their (translated into English) books. But one thing I haven't quite gotten into is one of the reasons Japan is so popular in the U.S. today: Anime.


Naruto Shippuden

The Japanese phenomenon of otaku culture has swept the nation. I've seen evidence of this as anime festivals and cosplay events are held frequently in New York City. People dress up as their favorite anime characters and have contests. There's an entire community of people who share a passion for the stories and characters that the Japanese have been prolific about creating and distributing.

I've never really understood the fascination behind it. As the New York Japanese Culture Examiner for the website examiner.com, I probably should. I've already written a couple of stories about anime and cosplay events in the city, and I'm going to be reporting about that sort of thing more often. So I've added "learning about otaku culture" to my to-do list and made it my New Year's resolution to become more familiar with the characters and shows the kids are so crazy about these days. I'll start by adding The Otaku Encyclopedia to my library and by watching different genres of anime.

I'm not going to dress up and enter myself into contests with 17-year-olds, but I'll continue to write about and promote events in NYC because they are a huge part of Japanese culture in the city, even though I've seen more non-Japanese at these events.

If any of you are knowledgeable about anime, manga, and otaku culture, what are your suggestions?

Literally Lost in Translation

I love the Japanese language. It's beautiful, lyrical, challenging, and sometimes really funny. When I read Japanese text, I always try to translate it myself and look words up in my dictionary. However, sometimes that's too difficult and time consuming, so I copy and paste online text into an Internet translator such as Babel fish. The results of literal translations are often hilarious. 


Here's one from the website for Go! Go! Curry!, my favorite Japanese fast food place in New York (and Tokyo). The site has descriptions of the participants in the Japanese curry restaurant's eating championship. Below is the Japanese text for the winner, Joseph Menchetti from Connecticut. 


ジョーが初めてイーティングスタントを始めたのは、小学校6年生の頃。他の子供達が嫌いな食べ物、ベイクドビーンズ16人前、グリーンビーンのサラダ12人前などを食べつくし、その当時から大食いだった。
ジョーが初めてコンテストで優勝したのは、1990年ニュージャージー州で開催されたドミノピザのコンテスト。その後、ネイサンズ・ホットドッグ大会、チキンウィングの大食い大会、バーベキューの大食い大会等に出場。数々の大会で優勝しているプロの大食い選手。
ニックネームはジェントルマン・ジョー。



The website has the English translation, but we thought it would be funny to see how Babel fish would translate it. Imagine Orson Welles reading this in his most pretentious voice. If you haven't thought about Welles in years – or you're too young to remember him – here's a YouTube reminder:





Now back to our translation courtesy of Bable fish (read in Orson's voice):


"As for the jaw for the first time beginning [iteingusutanto], small school 6th grade time. You ate the food, [beikudobinzu] 16 public and the salad 12 public etc of the green bean the other children dislike and exhausted, it was gluttony from that time. As for the jaw winning for the first time in the contest, the contest of the domino pizza which is held in 1990 New Jersey state. After that, you participate in the [neisanzu] hot dog conference, the gluttonous conference of the chicken wing and the gluttonous conference etc of barbecue. The professional gluttonous player who has won in the numerous conference. As for nickname gentleman jaw."


Wow. That's really bad. But funny. If you want to have chuckles with language, translate huge blocks of text with Babelfish, otherwise just use it for single words or simple phrases. If you're serious about having something translated from Japanese into English – or the other way around – talk to my friend Stacy. She does it for a living. 

Saturday, December 26, 2009

My Berkley is an LOL Cat!

Okay. I know it's lame, but we love LOL cats, the website where people write silly comments with bad grammar (I know!) on cat pictures. (Let me be firm: This is the ONLY time I advocate the use of bad grammar.)

On Christmas Day, we uploaded this shot of our Berkley playing with ribbon.



The next day, we saw this shot that a random stranger posted on the site:


While it's not as funny as our all-time favorite – see "Invisible Shopping Cart" below – it does make us smile.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Gifts I Wanted (But Didn't Receive)

The presents have been opened, and now it's time to assess the gifts that I wanted but didn't receive.

Snuggie - The blanket with arms has swept the nation, and once again I'm left behind. I was eyeing the one with the leopard pattern.


The Walking Sleeping Bag - I can live without a Snuggie. I've resigned myself to that fact. Then I saw this amazing Snuggie-esque garment from Japan. It's a sleeping bag that has legs so you can get up and walk around without having to wriggle out of the warmth of the bag. Brilliant! I didn't get that for Christmas, either.

Twin Draft Guard - Another amazing gift that I didn't get is the Twin Draft Guard. You've seen it on TV: The ingenious design that blocks air from seeping through your doors and windows. At first I was upset that it wasn't under my tree, but then I realized that I could make one out of styrofoam and any old piece of fabric. I also realized that we live in an apartment building, and our door doesn't open to the outside elements, so we don't have a problem with drafts.

ShamWow - I know. The rest of you are upset that no one gave you one of these things either. The amazing sponge-towel-thing should be a mainstay in everyone's kitchen. Or bathroom. Or anywhere you or guests spill something. Guess I'll just continue using paper towels or regular towels. That seems to work.

Crazy Kitchen Gadgets - Thought I would lose it when I opened all of my gifts only to realize that no one bought me a Grill Daddy Pro! The infomercials are mesmerizing. Wait. I don't have a grill. And the Nana Saver! Who doesn't need one of those! Well, Santa did give us something in the crazy kitchen gadget category: A sandwich maker by Cooks. Christmas Day brunch consisted of grilled cheese sandwiches made on this contraption. The bread didn't get a crispy brown texture, but the cheese melted nicely. Not sure if we like it yet.

Despite these shortcomings with a few gifts, I had a great Christmas! Hope everyone did, too!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas Tradition?

Kentucky Fried Chicken is still at it. The fast food giant has convinced the Japanese that Americans celebrate the Christmas holidays with a big ol' bucket of fried chicken.

Seeing this link on Japan Probe made me think about a story I wrote years ago for a now-defunct website about Okinawa. Although Internet-Okinawa no longer exists, my husband was able to find it on a great website that archives the World Wide Web. Because of the Wayback Machine, we were able to retrieve my first attempts at writing.

Here's the text of my article:

Okinawans are koo-koo for KFC. When Thanksgiving or Christmas rolled around, my aunt Nae-san couldn't wait to get that finger-lickin' goodness for her family's holiday meal. “Kentucky! Kentucky!” she would gleefully shout in anticipation. When my Mom first told me that story, I thought her sister was nuts. It wasn't until I read TR Reid's Confucius Lives Next Door that I realized Nae-san wasn't insane, but merely the victim of a clever advertising campaign.

Reid, who served five years as The Washington Post's Tokyo bureau chief during the 1990s, states that the venerable fast food establishment brought a taste of the Western traditions of Thanksgiving and Christmas to Japan by making the Japanese believe that all Americans consider KFC when planning their holiday menus.

“Kentucky Fried Chicken was probably the most successful of the major fast food chains in terms of sheer marketing to Asians. Somehow, the KFC folks successfully sold Japan, Korea, and parts of China on the notion that fried chicken is the classic American fare for Christmas dinner. (One of my own daughters, American born and bred, saw the commercials so often that she came to believe this.) The idea has gone over so well in Japan that you actually have to make a reservation, a week or two in advance, just to get a carry-out box of chicken at any time on December 24 or 25. Beginning in early December, KFC puts up giant signs outside each store telling how many reservations are still available.”

The marketing has worked, at least for my family in Okinawa. When my husband, Marc, my Mom and I arrived in Okinawa for a visit in 2001, my cousin Tsuyoshi and his wife, Tomiko, had prepared a traditional meal of rice, miso, Okinawan vegetables, Orion beer - and a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken! We're still not quite sure if they picked up the chicken because it was convenient, or because they liked it, or because they thought we would enjoy the taste of home. To be honest, we don't frequent KFC in the States, but that night the Colonel’s original recipe sure was tasty!

I somehow felt compelled to find out more about the phenomenon of KFC's presence in Japan. An Internet search yielded many interesting facts. I found the KFC Group website, which provided a timeline of the fast food chain’s activities in Japan. KFC set up a restaurant in March of 1970 as an experiment and established The Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan Ltd. with Mitsubishi Corporation four months later. The concept of KFC was a fascinating one for the Japanese to grasp, since “fried chicken” wasn't really a part of the food culture, nor was the custom of using one's hands to eat batter-dipped drumsticks. Perhaps curiosity fueled KFC's success: By 1979, less than a decade after its experiment began, KFC had 200 restaurants in Japan.

As for Okinawa, japanupdate.com had an intriguing tidbit. In 2002 a Dentsu Okinawa advertising agency survey reported that Okinawans ranked KFC their third-favorite fast food restaurant, behind the omnipresent McDonald's and second-place Mister Donut (Mister Donut?!), and ahead of Mos Burger and A&W. I don't know where KFC ranks in the United States, but I was honestly shocked by its third-place finish in this survey. Maybe TR Reid is right in Confucius Lives Next Door; KFC has learned how to market its product to the Japanese. It must be the Colonel.

In the early days people confused a newly opened KFC restaurant on mainland Japan for an electrical appliance store or a barber shop because of the store's red and white color scheme and bright lighting. To combat this confusion, the management placed a life-like statue of KFC's founder, Colonel Sanders, in the storefront. The Colonel, of course, is synonymous with KFC, so it didn't take long before most KFC establishments adorned their entrances with the Colonel's likeness. However, the KFC Group website mentions, some stores were unable to accommodate the 180cm, 90kg (5ft 9in, 198lb) statue because he blocked the sidewalk, or, as the website puts it, “in business quarters it becomes the interference of transit.”

The Colonel causes no such interference before the KFC near Tsuyoshi's house in Itoman. During our stay in 2001, Marc and I walked down to KFC for lunch, simply to see what it was like. The food was basically the same as an American menu - I don't recall seeing many Japanese food items - and it was a pleasant experience from the gracious service, to the store’s cleanliness, to the noticeable lack of greasy stains on the plate of chicken fingers we ordered. The wet-nap, which I kept as a souvenir, sums it up:

“Always Delicious, Always Sincere. Colonel Sanders, the founder had been stubbornly particular about bringing you the irreplaceable taste and service.”

The KFC Group’s website indicates that the first Christmas campaign took place in December 1974, and I wonder if that corresponds to the start of the “Americans eat fried chicken at Christmas” advertising extravaganza referred to in TR Reid's book. The KFC restaurants nationwide dress up their Colonel Sanders statues in Santa suits. (There are the occasional stores that dress up the Colonel in Imperial Palace togs in March and a Japanese warrior outfit in May, but I think the Santa costume is standard and consistent with all storefronts.)

Marc and I returned to Okinawa in November 2002, and the KFC in Naha was decked out in Christmas holiday finery. Green and red banners encircled the outside of the restaurant, and the figure of Colonel Sanders, dressed as Santa, stood proudly outside the door. Just as TR Reid described, a large sign near the entrance implored the Okinawan populace to plan ahead by pre-ordering holiday boxes, and banners with the words “Christmas party” written in katakana lined the street.

We were impressed by all of this. After visiting Okinawa and Nikko in Northern Honshu, Marc and I went to Tokyo on Thanksgiving Day. And what, you might ask, did we do for dinner? What any red-blooded Americans would do - we ate at KFC!


That brings us back to today, which is already tomorrow – and Christmas Day! – in Japan. The KFC-Christmas connection is in full force, with advertisers using cute little children to entice parents to buy chicken for Christmas dinner.


It seems to work for the franchise in Japan. Perhaps KFC is on to something; they should do a Christmas campaign in the States and take the stress of cooking out of Christmas.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Have an Eco-Trash Christmas in New York City!

Here's another reason to hang out in Chelsea during the holidays: Chelsea Market's Eco-Trash Christmas! The super-hip Chelsea Market, a chic strip of restaurants and shops housed in the former Nabisco building, is going green for the holidays.

The market called on the talents of environmental artist Tom Deininger and Los Angeles-based corporate consulting firm Creative Voltage to design eco-friendly decorations. The result is "eco-trash;" everything was created from recycled materials.

The globes hanging from the ceiling are made from used plastic cups.

The clear and red cups combine to create an other-worldly orb.

This lovely wreath is made from recycled CDs.

The hustle and bustle of Chelsea Market during the holidays can leave everything in a blur.

But when the crowd clears, you can see the beautiful Christmas tree, which, like the wreath, is made from discarded disks.

Up close, you can see the bits and pieces of the CDs that created this tree.

The menorah to the left of the Christmas tree is made from used pipes.

My personal favorite, the used plastic-utensil snowflake.

In a nod to its non-eco-friendly tradition, Chelsea Market continues to string thousands of lights through its central corridor. Guys, LEDs are more energy efficient.

The wires are green in color, at least.

Perhaps next Christmas we'll all follow Chelsea Market's lead and fashion our trees from broken CDs – and with iTunes and Pandora, who buys CDs anymore? – and snowflakes made of plastic forks.

Merry green Christmas!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

More Snow in the City

Just when we started getting jealous of places like Winston-Salem and Richmond getting massive amounts of snow, we finally experienced snowfall in the Northeast. I normally hate this kind of weather because I'm stuck at an airport somewhere, but I'm off for the rest of the year and staying in NYC. Perfect! So, Marc and I took advantage of this and walked around the city to enjoy the snow.





I know it's a whole lotta no fun if you have to fly or drive in this, but if you're lazing around, the snow is beautiful and magical.

Marc Photoshopped a few shots that I think look really cool:






Hope everyone is enjoying the weather, wherever you are!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Will Go Go Curry Go?



It became official this week: Hideki Matsui is no longer a New York Yankee. A month after being named the World Series MVP, Matsui signed a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Living in New York and being obsessed with Japanese culture, I'm a big fan of Matsui's – although I don't consider myself a Yankees fan – so I'm disappointed to see him go.

Most adults who follow baseball – or any professional sport, for that matter – understand that making personnel moves is a business decision. But a lot of people don't realize that having a Japanese player on a team has a strong impact on local business and interest. In The New York Times baseball hot stove blog called "Bats," Times reporter Ken Belson wrote about the impact Hideki Matsui had on Japanese fans in New York City. Because of Matsui's presence on the Yankees, NHK broadcast the Yankees games (home and away), and Japanese companies such as the Yomiuri Shimbun (the newspaper that owns Matsui's former team, the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants) and Komatsu (the construction equipment manufacturer near whose sign Matsui hit one of his World Series home runs). Matsui's leaving may mean those companies will leave as well because without him, there is no reason for them to stay. We already experienced that in New York with NHK. When Matsui broke his wrist in 2006, NHK stopped broadcasting Yankees games, so I'm sure they have no incentive to air games in Japan that don't involve Japanese players.

It's obvious that if NHK, Yomiuri, and/or Komatsu get out of dodge, revenue at Yankee Stadium will be affected. There are also more subtle ways that Matsui's departure will negatively impact the Yankees' and New York's economy. Fewer Japanese fans will attend games, buy Matsui T-shirts, and pay attention to the Yankees. (Japanese fans follow Japanese players in MLB; they honestly don't care about the teams.)

What concerns me the most is the state of one of my favorite Japanese fast food joints in the city, Go! Go! Curry. The restaurant, which serves Japanese-style curry dishes, is essentially a shrine to Matsui; the owner, Hirokazu Miyamori, hails from the former Yankee slugger's hometown of Kanazawa, Japan. Miyamori is such a dedicated fan that he named his curry shop after Matsui's jersey number with the Yomiuri Giants and the Yankees. (Technically, 55 is "go juu go" in Japanese, but why quibble on semantics?) And isn't it a strange coincidence that the Midtown eatery, opened in 2007, is Miyamori's 27th restaurant in his Go! Go! Curry chain, and Matsui recently helped the Yankees win its 27th World Series? Hmm . . .

Anyway, after Matsui's signing with the Angels, a friend of mine asked me if it would be possible that Go! Go! Curry would leave NYC. It can't possibly! It's the best Japanese fast food ever! And Japanese tourists love going there for a taste of home, I'm sure. Miyamori's spokeswoman, Kazuko Nagao, was quoted in The New York Times's Dining Out blog that Miyamori is disappointed by Matsui's departure, but it seems to me that the franchise is staying put. So, maybe all they'll do is remove the pictures of Matsui that adorn the walls and discontinue the discounts offered the day after Matsui hits home runs. As long as I can still have my pork katsu, I'm okay with it.

It doesn't seem like it's all bad feelings between Miyamori and his baseball idol. According to Go! Go! Curry's website, the restaurant is having a "Thank You and Good Luck Matsui Campaign" on Monday, December 21, complete with coupons for a free topping.

The balance of the economy as it is affected by the Japanese community will no doubt shift to the West Coast. Japanese fans of Matsui will start rooting for the Angels, buy Matsui jerseys, and go to Anaheim on vacation. If all goes well, Miyamori says, perhaps he'll open another Go! Go! Curry in Los Angeles.

Good thing Matsui will still be wearing #55.








First Snow in New York

While the South was enduring the Storm of the Century, I wondered if the snow would ever make it to New York. It finally started at around one this afternoon. Looks like it's going to stick!





Here are some pictures of the early snow as it began to fall in Chelsea.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Gyrations of Kawaii Culture at Japan Society


I went into the opening night of the world premiere of "there is no end to more," a performance commissioned by the Japan Society, with the expectation that I would leave angry at choreographer Jeremy Wade and actor/dancer Jared Gradinger for defiling kawaii and the culture of cute that has been a phenomenon in Japan for almost forty years. In the article I posted on examiner.com, the concept of kawaii has exploded from doodles on schoolgirls' notebooks to what we all associate with Japanese culture: Computer games, fashion, manga, and anime. Those things have saturated how we view the Japanese. Writer Marcos Rosales mentions in the YouTube video above that Wade's fascination with kawaii culture manifested itself when things became too cute and, as a result, sinister.

So I thought I was going to see a show that trashed Hello Kitty and my favorite Sanrio characters, but there was none of that. Most of it didn't even seem Japanese, except for the narration at the beginning. Whispering in a mischievous tone, the disembodied voice of the narrator describes what seem to be scenarios for super heros and cartoon characters. Wade and his cronies discuss consumerism, but in more general, global terms, rather than how having an amagurichan cell phone strap leads to the destruction of the world as we know it. Or at least culture as we know it.

Despite the absence of Hello Kitty and Badtz Maru, there were cute characters in the show. There was a ghost named Boo Hoo and a bear. They had bit parts and met with sad fates, but it still didn't make me mad at the production for bashing kawaii. I was prepared to defend kawaii culture. I had planned to come straight home after the performance and write a blog entry that extolled the virtues of cute, happy, sing-songy characters despite how horribly the world crumbles around them. No need. Consumerism is consumerism, whether it be through the purchase of cute things or serious things. I think Jeremy Wade and his collaborators could have been more brutal toward kawaii culture, but I'm glad they weren't. I left happy in the knowledge that cute things prevailed.

Regardless of the degree of Japanese-ness, "there is no end to more" is still an enjoyable show. Gradinger – the actor, dancer, and, I'm convinced, yoga master – flung himself across the stage with reckless abandon. I think his character was controlled by the voice of the narrator; at least he didn't control it by himself. He seemed almost surprised by his gyrations, and his playful facial expressions and childlike voice perfectly suited each segment of the performance. It's interesting to note that one of his costumes was a shirt that bore the Star Trek logo, an homage to the American sci-fi classic?

Oh, I noticed a boo-boo under Gradinger's left knee cap when he took his much deserved bows after the performance. It wasn't there when the show began, so I think it may have been caused by his falling down and rolling around on the stage.

I wonder if he covered the boo-boo with a Hello Kitty Band-Aid.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

I'm a Hit in the Kyoto Metalworks Community!

I recently started writing for examiner.com as the New York Japanese Culture Examiner. My goal is to write stories about Japanese events (cultural, musical, artistic, food related) taking place in New York City. One of the articles I wrote was about a gallery exhibit at the Nippon Club called The Te-WaZa. It featured the work of thirty metalworking artists from Kyoto. When I attended the event, I met Junpei Yamanaka, an artist and president of Seikado, a Kyoto metal arts and crafts studio. After I posted the story, I sent a link to Yamanaka-san. He appreciated my willingness to write about something fairly obscure, so he posted my link on his website. Pretty cool.

Although I had heard of the Nippon Club, this was the first time I attended an event there. The gallery space is on the first floor of the building. The Te-WaZa artwork was neatly displayed on tables that ran alongside the gallery's long walls. A video showing artists at work in their studios ran in a loop on a large projection screen at the far end of the gallery.

The intricate design of this dish amazes me because it seems as if it would be extremely hard to create such precise flowers using metal. The video that played in the gallery demonstrated the sweaty process involved in making art with iron.

This is a bronze tool used in Buddhist ceremonies. It's another example of the fine detail that is a trademark of metalworks artists.

Another Buddhist ceremonial tool. When I visited this exhibit, I had the pleasure of meeting Yorimasa Aiba, who, as the president and director of Aiba Kinzoku Corp, helped to bring these works to New York. He told me that many of the Kyoto artists are commissioned to do pieces for temples. Kyoto is famous for its temples, so I'm sure this is a good source of work for the local artists.

This iron elephant is another commissioned piece and was made by Seiuemon Ohnishi. The elephant is an important figure in Buddhism; it represents the "strength of the mind." According to Aiba-san, this elephant's face bears a slight resemblance to the patron who commissioned this work. (Not sure if this was the customer's request.)

In the picture above, Junpei Yamanaka, the aforementioned artist and president of Seikado, poses with his work.

Yamanaka-san creates beautiful works from pewter. Seikado, Yamanaka-san says, is the only pewter craft specialty shop in Japan. He brought with him to New York plates, hashi (chopsticks) holders, and sake cups. He uses a mold to create the designs on his plates, but he hammers patterns by hand onto the sake cups and pitchers.

Here is the beautiful design of Yamanaka-san's hashi holders. Yamanaka-san's designs are an example of artwork that can actually be used; however, one would probably use these plates and cups only for special occasions.

Above are tobacco pipes Yamanaka-san fashioned from silver. These types of pipes are no longer used, but Yamanaka-san and his colleagues at Seikado like to keep in touch with the technique of making them. He appreciates the challenge of finding a balance between traditional and contemporary design. In fact, Seikado is active in teaching young artists in the metalworks genre. At least in Kyoto, young people are still interested in this craft, so Yamanaka-san is happy to pass on the tradition.

Shigeyuki Satomura's jewelry offers a playful contrast to the elegance of the rest of the exhibit. A dragon, an imaginary animal, and a "jealous female demon" provide an edgier look to otherwise traditional art. Actually, the dragons and demons have a long history in Japan; perhaps Satomura's work is more traditional than I first thought.

We move from the hard edges of dragons to the simple charm of these brass vases, "10 Colors" by Masaharu Nishina.

Chikako Ueda used copper to create these stylized and classy vases.


My favorite vase in this exhibit, however, is this one: "Flower and Bird" by Yuuji Koizumi. The flower patterns on the sides of the vase look as if they are stained glass.

"Chrysanthemum and Hemp," a beautiful copper hairpin made by Tatsuya Kobayashi.

A miniature samurai helmet by Tetsuya Saji. Aiba-san says one of these helmets takes almost three months to produce because of the design and materials. Several centuries ago these helmets adorned the heads of actual samurai, then they were produced for young boys to wear on the occasion of kodomo no hi, or Children's Day. Nowadays, they are for decoration and not to be worn.

Spending some time with Aiba-san and Yamanaka-san – with much appreciated translation from Mayumi-san – was a special learning experience.