Archive for February, 2010

Connecting six degrees of separation

Friday, February 26th, 2010

The links to legendary shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa

The links to legendary shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa

A new visual search tool called Hitotsunagi (Connecting People), developed by NTT Resonant, allows users to explore the relationships between Japanese celebrities and historical figures. Launched this week on Goo Labo (Goo Labs), an offshoot of portal site Goo, the tool makes use of a rich indexing technique developed by NTT Cyberspace Laboratory that extracts contextual relationships based on online data found in the news and blog entries.

A search on a famous name produces a bubble at the center of the screen around which a number of smaller bubbles pop up, linked to the central bubble; tags displays the nature of the surrounding connections. Clicking on one of the related people moves them into the focus of a new search.

The tool, which resembles Google’s Wonderwheel,  is impressively smooth and swift, though the results of our searches were a bit hit and miss. While historical figures like Ieyasu Tokugawa brought up images of paintings, searches for well-known, contemporary names such as Ryuichi Sakamoto came up blank. And according to Hitotsunagi, actor Shun Shioya, born in 1982, is the “father” of actress Misako Renbutsu, born in 1991. Oops.

Glitches aside, Hitotsunagi should be rather educational for Japanophiles wanting to put things quickly into perspective. NTT Resonant is keen on pushing the interface envelope, and it is indeed a fun tool to play with, but the devil in me would love to see relationship categories beyond family members and friends, such as rivals and ex-lovers, just to spice things up a bit.

The service will be available until Dec. 31, 2010, and currently only searches Japanese text. One wonders if the tool could be extended to the rest of the word. It would be an excellent global manifestation of Stanley Milgram’s Small World Experiment.

Baum cake blitz

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

baumkuchen

As convenience store chains go, Family Mart is one of the nicest. The quality and cleanliness always seems to be higher than average, which perhaps explains why minimalist retail store Muji chose it as the convenience store to carry Muji products. Or maybe it’s simply because both were originally part of the Seiyu Group, a large conglomerate and operator of Japanese supermarkets.

Many Family Mart locations stock a limited selection of Muji pens, pencils, stationery, condoms, underwear and snacks – tasty old-school snacks such as yogurt-covered cranberries, caramel-flavored marshmallows and chocolate-covered clumps of peanuts. The products rotate in and out, and Muji has kept a monthly column introducing new products and listing popular items since April 2006.

One particularly addictive item is Muji’s line of baumkuchen – known to many Americans as baum cake. Muji stores carry the full line of flavors: banana, sweet potato, pumpkin, milk tea, chocolate-iced chestnut and salt chocolate. A thin cut of circular baum sells for ¥158. Smaller “stick” sizes sell for ¥105 and are available in plain, purple sweet potato and black cocoa. The two newest flavors are lemon and strawberry, both of which are topped with icing and thus are noticeably sweeter than the others.

Family Marts usually offer one or two varieties, and recently the Family Mart near me has been selling the lemon flavor. It’s been two weeks since I discovered this, and I’m averaging 2.5 baums a week.

The non-iced flavors are all very subtly sweet, perfect for the Japanese palate. This may explain the baum-cake madness that can be witnessed outside of Nenrinya cake shops – customers regularly line up for hours in lines that extend over 1 km to buy cuts of gourmet baumkuchen for souvenirs. A single “ridge” of baum runs ¥1,239. Even if you don’t stand in line, it’s always fun to watch the baumkuchen cook on rotisseries in the windows of stores.

Pulse Rate: 社畜 (shachiku)

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

This week we launch Pulse Rate, where we look at online cardiographs and measure the EKG of the Japanese internet via the keywords ranking high in the search-engine charts and elsewhere. Will they be only brief blips or signs of bigger things to come? Only time will tell.

社畜.COM. exploded to the top of Goo’s Keyword Rankings this week, debuting at No. 2 this past Sunday and topped only by actress Sei Ashina (lead actress in the soon-to-be-released movie version of the manga “Saru Lock”). The site is a Japanese internet meme based on the invented word shachiku (社畜). Shachiku is a combination of kaisha (会社, company) and kachiku (家畜, domestic animal/beast of burden) – in other words, “corporate cattle.”

syachiku graph

Some poor soul on the brink of becoming branded

The term was originally coined by “business novelist” Satoshi Azuchi, whose most well-known novel is “Supermarket,” a somewhat autobiographical story of managerial intrigue at a supermarket. Economic commentator Makoto Sataka took Azuchi’s term and popularized it in his columns for Japanese weekly Shuukan Kinyoubi. The shachiku site was an instant hit after its launch in June 2009 and widely covered in the Japanese blogosphere.

The site itself is a short quiz that determines “How much of a corporate drone have you become?  Site visitors have to answer 30 yes-no questions, such as “Do you have to do unpaid overtime?,” “Are you forced to go drinking after work?,” and “Does your boss give you a funny look when you ask to take paid leave?”

After answering the questions, users are given a graph that maps their drone-ness. I ended up with 42% drone-ness, which indicates that I am “in danger of becoming corporate cattle very shortly (そろそろ社畜化しそうです).” The site then offers links to books such as “Kotowaru Chikara” (断る力,” “The Power to Refuse”) and other self-help guides for those unable to change the inertia of their miserable situation.

Continue reading about shachiku →

Japan by the numbers (2.23.10)

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

A new generation of cosplayers

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Transform your baby into a superhero

Transform your baby into a superhero

Bandai have just announced the release of a new range of cosplay baby romper suits featuring characters from tokusatsu and anime series such as Kamen Rider, Doraemon, Ultraman and Dragon Ball. The rompers come hot on the heels of a similar range of hoods and bibs released last summer and are extremely affordable at only ¥1,575 each. The characters chosen are designed to appeal to an older generation who remember these classic series with fondness and want to transform their tots into Super Sentai.

Given the popularity of cosplay in Japan, it’s not surprising that parents would want their kids to get in on the action. Take these Naruto babies and Death Note toddlers, for example. As well as anime, video game characters costumes are also a source of inspiration. Foreign fans of Japanese video games have handmade some awesome baby costumes such as this knitted Katamari Damacy suit or this Link baby costume for lovers of Zelda.

Naturally, many parents turn to the classics – Disney costumes and cute bear hoods – when dressing up their tikes, but what about those looking for slightly hipper threads?  Hip hop gear is definitely on trend at Baboo Wear’s online shop, where parents can stock up on kid-size baseball caps and New Skool romper suits with a motif that makes your kid look like it owns a fat pair of headphones.

The Bandai romper suits hit the stores later this month. Baby henshin!

Japan’s après ski party scene heats up

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Snow Splash features homegrown and international acts

Snow Splash features homegrown and international acts

Après ski in Japan used to mean sipping malt whisky in Swiss-style mountain lodges while listening to generic smooth jazz. But in recent years this model has got shaken up a bit with the arrival of live music festivals and organized ski trips that target a crowd who like to mix socializing with their snow time.

“Powder inna day, louda inna night,” is the motto of Snow Splash Japan a live music event organized by Outdoor Magazine that is now in its fifth year. “We started Snow Splash in the 2005-2006 winter because we love winter sports and music festivals and at the time there was a lot in summer but nothing in winter,” said Gardner Robinson, the creator of Snow Splash and editor of Outdoor Magazine. The event is getting increasingly popular. “We had more than 450 people in Minakami this year and expect Hakuba to go off.” Robinson is referring to their next event, on Feb. 27, which will feature live music and DJs both local and international.

Another festival that has been, um, snowballing is WeSky a Go-Go, which started out in March 2005 with 60 to 70 participants and grew the next year to around 500. Held in Niigata at the same resort that hosts Fuji Rock festival in summer, the event is organized by Smash Japan in aid of victims of the Niigata earthquake. Aimed at a more clubby crowd than Snow Splash, DJs Takkyu Ishino, Dexpistols, Gold Panda and The Samos will be spinning the decks from 7 p.m. till midnight on March 13.

Continue reading about the après ski scene in Japan →

Cell-phone magazine comes out of the closet

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

The cell phone magazine features 20 of Japan's top models

The cell phone magazine features 20 of Japan’s top models

Last week saw the launch of Model Closet magazine’s new cell-phone site. Featuring 20 big-name models from Japan’s fashion world, or more specifically, the fashion world that flourishes on the streets of Shibuya, the site will focus be on “non fiction, real trend,” meaning that most of the clothes featured will be affordable fast fashion. Models such as Muto Shizuka, Aya Hoshi, Ikemegu, Sayaka Araki and Sakurina will appear in their own clothing and give tips to readers on fashion and beauty.

Falling magazine revenues mean that publishers have to find ways of adapting to survive, so setting up sister cell-phone sites is a smart way of tapping into new media, without sacrificing the exclusivity of their content. The rise in popularity of touchscreen phones also means that readers in Japan are more willing to read magazine content on their cell phone. While the jury is still out on e-readers, cell-phone publishing is making great strides.

Chiming with the style of popular Tokyo Girls Collection fashion show, the site features affordable homegrown brands such as Cecil McBee and uses native rather than foreign models. Tokyo Girls Collection has enjoyed huge popularity following this formula and now in its fifth year is still going strong. The next Tokyo Girls Collection event will be held in Yokohama on March 6, followed by an event in Okinawa on April 24. The event prides itself on its non-exclusivity, allowing members of the public to  purchase tickets and gain access that would normally be the preserve of industry insiders at a typical fashion show.

Model Closet cell-phone site also aims to give subscribers the feeling that they’re privy to industry information and will include beauty tips not only from top models but also from makeup and wardrobe artists, so you too can enjoy a head of brilliant orange bouffant hair and diamante talons to boot.

QR code breaking out of the box

Friday, February 12th, 2010

The QR code is breaking out of its box both physically and virtually as an increasing number of innovative new formats and uses are coming onto the scene. Take creative agency Set Japan, who have dreamed up some groovy artwork that incorporates the code itself. Its recent Frisk mints video a QR code is constructed by hand out of the tiny round mints themselves, demonstrating how codes can be displayed in 3-D.

Tokyo got its first QR code building in Tachikawa last December. Large black-and-white blocks displayed  in the building’s windows form a large code that’s linked to a Web site. That’s cool in itself, but the creators of the N Building concept, Teradadesign and Qosmo, have also integrated augmented reality to add yet another layer of information. With a special iPhone app, users can watch real-time tweets written by people inside the building, view information about the stores inside and download discount coupons.

Continue reading about QR codes in Japan →

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