Author Archive

The knock-on effect of Murakami’s “1Q84” series

Monday, April 19th, 2010

Book 3 of Haruki Murakami's "1Q84" on sale at a bookstore in Yokohama.

Book 3 of Haruki Murakami’s “1Q84″ on sale at a bookstore in Yokohama.

Over the past three decades, author Haruki Murakami has been translated into over 40 languages and become an international superstar. In Japan he debuted in 1979 with “Hear the Wind Sing” and regularly sold thousands and even tens of thousands of copies of his novels, but when he published “Norwegian Wood” in 1987, he was thrown into the pop culture spotlight, selling in the hundreds of thousands and eventually the millions. Internationally, he started to be published in translation in the 1980s but didn’t boom, at least in English, until the late ’90s, by which time the trio of translators Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel started to catch up with Murakami’s log of work.

At this point, almost all of his major novels have been published in English and many other languages, which is perhaps part of the reason that the release of his previous novel  “1Q84” in May 2009 was covered so widely in the international press: News of a release in Japan whets the appetite of his loyal overseas readership.

The fact that the book was a runaway success in Japan is also part of the reason. Murakami kept the content of the story a secret (unlike with 2002 “Kafka on the Shore,” the plot of which leaked before publication), which undoubtedly increased interest and expectation in Japan. “1Q84″ went on to sell over a million copies of each of the first two volumes in hardcover, and as it was covered in the press on morning news shows and in newspapers and magazines, it became an almost unprecedented trend generator.

At some point in the past year, Murakami decided that the story was not finished, so he produced an additional 602 pages (bringing the total page count to 1,657), which were released as Book 3 on April 16.

Continue reading about Haruki Murakami's third installtion of "1Q84" →

With Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, is a hit for the PSP at hand?

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

Gamers at Yodobashi-Akiba playing their PSPs at a PlayStation Spot

Gamers at Yodobashi-Akiba playing their PSPs at a PlayStation Spot

Sony’s PlayStation 2 has had a remarkably long life for a home video game console. Released in 2000, it has sold over 140 million units. In Japan alone it has sold over 21 million units, and game developers continue to release new titles, even after Sony debuted its next-generation PlayStation 3 in 2006.

The times are changing, however, and handheld consoles are more and more often becoming the chosen platform for game developers.

Peace Walker: The newest game in the Metal Gear Solid franchise

Peace Walker: The newest game in the Metal Gear Solid franchise

By offering games that casual users are interested in, such as “brain training” games and cooking games, the Nintendo DS, released in 2004, has already surpassed the number of PS2 units sold within Japan for a total of 30 million consoles, or one for every four people in Japan. In turn the huge success of the console has attracted game developers who covet the large market.

The most surprising example of the change the DS has caused is Dragon Quest IX. The Dragon Quest series, which had been a home console staple for years, chose the Nintendo DS for its ninth installment, which was released last year to enormous sales.

The success of the DS has also made it difficult for other handhelds in the market; the PlayStation Portable (PSP), Sony’s handheld video game system, has sold half of the number of units the DS has. Possibly to help prop up the PSP in its battle against the Nintendo DS, Hideo Kojima, director of the incredibly popular Metal Gear Solid video game franchise, opted to release Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, due out in Japan on April 29, on the PSP rather than the PS3.

Kojima is a big proponent of handhelds, making it clear that he treated Peace Walker like a true game in the series, on the same level as a Metal Gear Solid 5 rather than as just a side story. Recently he stated that he believes the death knell for home consoles has sounded: “Gamers should be able to take the experience with them in their living rooms, on the go, when they travel – wherever they are and whenever they want to play. It should be the same software and the same experience.”

Kojima’s scouts must have been monitoring the action around Yodobashi Camera in Akihabara, a mecca for portable gamers. The front of the store is often the gathering place for groups of gamers who take advantage of the multiplayer functions of handhelds. Inside, there are PlayStation Spots where PSP users can connect and download demos. The release of Dragon Quest IX prompted huge crowds all searching for in-game items that required wireless interaction with other players. Peace Walker might be the next title to try and emulate the phenomenon.

Last Wednesday Konami held a media presentation that revealed the tie-in products for Peace Walker. In addition to Doritos, Axe, Pepsi, Mountain Dew and the Sony Walkman, Peace Walker will feature other video games. Video game magazine Famitsu leaked details of a tie-in with Capcom’s Monster Hunter series, and Konami confirmed this at the presentation. The lead character, Snake, will be able to hunt dinosaurs and roast meat as in the Monster Hunter series. There are also collaborations with Square Enix’s Front Mission Evolved and Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed. While the Assassin’s Creed tie-in is just a small part of the game, the combination with Monster Hunter, another popular game for the PSP with ad hoc multiplayer features, and Front Mission Evolved seem to imply that there will be a large multiplayer aspect to the game. Uniqlo/UT has also been recruited by Konami. They will release Peace Walker-themed T-shirts that players can load into the game. By entering a number from the barcode on the tag into the game, players will be able to have their characters wear a digital version of the T-shirt they just purchased.

Konami already has the next Metal Gear home console title in development (the title is Metal Gear Solid: Rising), and surely it will be a success, as most of the games in the franchise have been over the past decade, but unless gamers decide to start schlepping their PlayStation 3 systems out and about in Tokyo, it has no chance of becoming an ad hoc wireless phenomenon. With the help of dinosaurs, assassins and Uniqlo, Peace Walker still may.

Kings of comedy yuck it up on April Fools

Friday, April 9th, 2010

famoso1

Beat Takeshi and Tokoro George published the third issue of Famoso on April Fool’s Day

It could be said that modern Japanese comedy doesn’t exactly make extensive use of satire for its material. For the most part, comedians center their acts on physical and verbal gags, one-off jokes that can be incorporated into a variety of different circumstances.

April Fool’s Day, however, seems to have created a space in which it is acceptable to satirize to a certain extent. The event isn’t celebrated widely in Japan; although, multinational companies with Japanese divisions take advantage of the occasion to let their hair down and show their lighter side. Google debuted their unique Japanese keyboard, and YouTube introduced TEXTp, the latest video mode unique to Japan’s text-centric cell phone culture.

This year some smaller Japanese companies used the day to raise their profile virally through the mad linkfest spawned by April Fool’s Day. The craft beer company Sankt Gallen introduced its new brew Toriaezu Beer, making fun of the Japanese custom of ordering “whatever the hell you have on tap for now” as the first drink at a restaurant. Sankt Gallen sold the beer for 24 hours on April 1, alone or bundled with their standard selection of beers.

The brewer’s creative efforts earned it 15th place in the April Fool’s Awards 2010, a Japanese Web site where the public could vote for their favorite site. Another site, April Fool’s Japan 2010, provided a list of all the April Fool’s Jokes and, a few days before April 1, organized Twitter hash tags to help spot new Web sites with jokes.

A number of large Japanese companies joined in the fun. Chintai, a provide of rental housing information, expanded their coverage of apartments to outer space. Japanese massively multiplayer online role-playing game The Tower of AION advertised their skyscraper condominium named after the game. While tours of “power spots” have attracted hordes of women, Travel.jp offered men a chance to visit a power spot that would make them popular.

Probably the most ambitious April Fool’s effort was that of comedians Beat Takeshi and Tokoro George, who released the third issue of their satire magazine Famoso. They first released the magazine for April Fool’s Day 2009. Reportedly the result of an excess of creative material from when the two hung out at Tokoro’s home and office, the magazine was so popular that it was reprinted, and the pair released a second issue last August.

Continue reading about April Fools' in Japan

Will a coven of Witch Girls grow in Japan?

Monday, March 29th, 2010

Warming up the powerstone

Recharging the power stone

I share an apartment with five Japanese people – two girls and three guys – and on Sunday night I walked into our kitchen to discover one of the girls recharging her power stone. The stone was pink and smooth, some kind of quartz or something. She said she bought it in Peru. Recharging it involved sitting next to our stove, which is ventilated by a hood, and holding a smoking piece of white sage under the rock. “It stinks!” she yelled 10 minutes later before walking back into her room. “It smells like medicine!”

My other female roommate once went to a fortune teller. She said it cost ¥15,000 for an hour and a half, during which time she could ask anything. She collected business cards from her friends at work and brought them along, generously offering to use some of her time to ask about their future. “She told me this girl was going to have a lot of problems,” she told me in a low voice, holding one of the business cards in her hand.

“So what are you going to tell her?” I asked.

“I’ll make something up. Something nice.”

As the success of “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” have proved, the supernatural is a big hit with just about everyone, especially girls. In Japan, the recent tendency to classify girl-fashion trends has merged the natural and supernatural into “Witch Girls.”

Continue reading about "witch girls" in Japan →

Big (only) in Japan? Beer salesgirls

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

beergirl

A beer uriko hard at work at the Waseda-Keio baseball game.

This marks the debut of a series where we ask “Big (only) in Japan?” We have a hunch but we want to hear from you. Have you seen this outside of Japan? Let us know in the comment section below.

In Japan, the end of March brings warmer weather, cherry blossoms and the start of the baseball season. Opening Day for the Pacific League was on March 20, and the Central League opens March 26. Lead by self-organized cheerleading teams, the crowds will chant elaborate cheers and songs (often a different cheer for each player), wave flags, jump up and down, and in the process work up a serious thirst for an ice cold beverage.

Enter the beer salesgirl – in Japanese, biiru no uriko (ビールの売り子). In Japan, “Hey, beer man!” will not only earn you strange looks because you are yelling in English – additionally, no men serve beer at baseball games here. The task is instead performed by young women who wear special backpacks that contain a miniature keg of beer. Dressed in short shorts and team uniforms, they move throughout the stadium seats, serving fresh beer right off the tap to reenergize the hordes.

Continue reading about biiru no uriko →

How to make a Big Bang in show business

Friday, March 12th, 2010

bigbang

Big Bang: Big in South Korea, yes, but they want a bigger bang

In Japan, the mainstream music industry, and Johnny’s Jimusho in particular, is infamous for unyielding, top-down control of its artists, most notably how and where their images are displayed. Naturally, the explosion of fan Web sites, blogs and social networking sites has threatened to erode that control. In many cases, the industry’s response is to flex its muscles even more. Johnny’s has long forbidden digital photos of their pop idols to be uploaded to even major media sites. We’re talking about official photos that promote a movie or TV show in which the agency’s artist stars.

This set-up works in Japan because, as a rule, the media is beholden to the big talent agencies and labels. But what if, one day, Johnnys’ decides to sell its boy bands to a global market – could it keep the overseas media on a similarly tight leash? When that day comes, the agency would do well to study the track record of Big Bang, a South Korean hip-hop boy-band sensation that has obviously figured out a way to make the series of tubes work to its advantage.

Formed in 2006, Big Bang is determined to milk the Web for all it is worth in its aggressive attempts to market the band’s brand beyond South Korea. While the band has the requisite official sites in both Korean and Japanese, several of the band members have me2day pages where they post tweet-like messages in Korean with attached pictures and video. The band also has an extremely open attitude when it comes to fan sites. Fans around the world run a cavalcade of sites devoted to the band and gather on “VIP” (the self-applied name for Big Bang fans) forums whose theme is to promote friendly fandom and prevent “claim wars.” A Tokyo-based fan group named Team.Bigbang has made the band particularly visible via a Twitter account, Flickr account, Facebook page and Blogspot blog. These sites and forums traffic in high-quality photos, snapshots of the band from what appear to be personal mobile phones and even bootleg concert video filmed by fans.

Continue reading about J-pop, K-pop and social media →

Internet Go BOOM: Visual Kei’s Deep Throat

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

This marks the debut of Internet Go BOOM, a series that will look at how topics du jour evolve online in Japan.

The Epicenter

3.1.2010: Tokyo Damage Report posts a nearly 10,000 word anonymous interview with a former executive of a Visual Kei record label. The executive dishes on the state of the industry, exposes harsh working conditions of band members, gives examples of marketing strategies of the executives, and draws a detailed picture of the mob-like connections between different Visual Kei labels.

Between March 1 and March 7 a 74-comment (and counting) discussion ensues between TDR, Visual Kei fans and curious bystanders. DaRC promises to blog further on the topic and interview to “rip holes” in fan girl “dream bubbles.” Mary worries that her money spent on Visual Kei music and merchandise isn’t going to the artists. “Relatively Mature Adult Fangirl” calls some of the interview exaggeration and says that the interview would be more believable if it was about Johnny’s Jimusho. “Don’t want to get kneecapped,” a journalist who covered Visual Kei bands, claims that the rigid control is far worse than U.S. artists experience.

The Aftershocks

3.1.2010: Adamu of Mutantfrog Travelogue, a multi-author blog about East Asian culture and politics, posts a link to the interview. 19-comment (and counting) discussion ensues. Dave worries that sites may be considering the interview actual investigative journalism when it is actually of questionable authenticity. He also notes that the tone of the translation has TDR’s trademark style – casual, lots of pop-culture references, very entertaining. Adamu notes that he called it “a probably true-to-life mokumentary.” In the comments, Roy of Mutantfrog requests David Marx’s opinion.

3.3.2010: Mash Potato Poet, Visual Kei fan and rural poet, expresses mixed feelings of betrayal (on the part of the producers and shadowy label owners) and sympathy (for the band members who are just like sarariimen even if they don’t wear suits).

Continue reading about Visual Kei's Deep Throat →

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.

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