Japanese for aggressive people

If you’re planning on acting like an a.s.b.o. baiting yob in Japan, and if you plan to use the train during rush hours this is probably a given, your teachers will not be much use to you. To learn this kind of language you’ll have to ask your colleagues over a few cigarettes. This is quite fun in itself as you repeat your newly learned swearwords to great hilarity in front of other colleagues who will feign shock and jokingly chastise the person who taught you for corrupting this pure and innocent foreigner. Alternatively you can just read this public service post.

Remember that when Japanese people shout and bark they are scary but when foreigners do so they are just weird foreigners. The very best way to impress your anger onto others is to cock your head back and to the side a little and mumble or be at least softly spoken. A wry or evil smile may even enhance the effect. As proof I offer the difference when I once had a futile shouting match with a jostling commuter as opposed to the time a guy was complaining my arm was in his face (it was the other way round from my point of view) and I just calmly told him “shouganai” (“too bad”). The former situation was embarrassing and unresolved, the latter resulted in the man rushing away from me to the next carriage as soon as he was able to.

When someone stands in your way, a common occurrence in the entry halls of shoes-off izakayas, you can tell them to move with
but that isn’t really hard enough. It means “you’re in the way!” and can be used jokingly, affectionately or semi-seriously, but when you really want someone the “get the feck out of my face” you can say
Or if someone is being loud and obnoxious you can tell them so with
which means “noisy!” and infers “shut up!” You can enhance the effect by speaking in the vulgate and slurring
which means the same and comes from the same word but sounds a whole lot ruder.

In Japan you will get stared at occasionally and it’s best to get used to or ignore it. Usually it’s fairly benign but if you want to make an issue out of it you can do so with
which basically translates as “what the feck you lookin’ at?” This may give rise to a retort which you can deflect with
which translates as “what the feck you sayin’?” or “you talkin’ to me?” It can also be used when someone says something untoward in which case you use it as “what are you talking about?” With a single letter difference there is also
which means “what the feck are you doing?” Applications for this exclamation are numerous; use your imagination. When you’re pushed, when someone does something stupid, when someone throws a punch and you’re pretending it didn’t even hurt, etc.

As everyone knows a good retort or verbal attack is strengthened with a “git” or “twat” thrown in for good measure. Japanese is a little lacking in this area. There are some good words, though, but not that many. For example you can call someone
which literally means “foolish” albeit in an extremely negative way. So referring to someone as “baka” means you saying he’s an idiot, or referring to something you think is idiotic. All in all it sounds quite mild to my British sensibilities but rest assured that in Japan this is considered rude. To call someone an arsehole use the word
which sounds vaguely similar, so it’s easy to remember, but it does only mean “fool”.

According to colleagues the worst you can call someone is
or
for short.

The thing to remember though is that aggravation in Japan lies in the attitude rather than the words. Your stance, your tone of voice, the level of politeness your Japanese takes on, these all go towards your aggressive attitude a lot more than telling someone to “get the feck away”. Practice looking down with disdain, a soft but ever so slightly sneery voice, a stance which just speaks volumes on your attitude towards your target; with those mastered you could politely ask for a cup of tea and be assured a fight.

Happy hunting!

Strangers on the train

It was on the way back home one evening a crush of people pushed their way into the train, but one particular salaryman felt the need to not pay any attention and stare into his aqua-blue DS Lite. He was so focused he literally wasn’t looking where he was going. He ambled my way, hunched over and concentrating, and came to a halt when I decided I had had enough of his pushing and pushed back. There he stood, half-drunkenly floating about, trying to stay upright, as the train stopped and started. He was probably in his mid to late fifties, dark hair almost gray, wearing a thin brown jacket that hung loosely off his skinny frame. From the corner of my eye I take a peek and see he is playing Tetris DS.

We’ve all heard of those mad Japanese Tetris skills, so I decide to pay closer attention, at which point two things strike me.
First, this is no man, this is a woman, an aged granny glued to her Tetris DS. It was difficult to spot while she was hunched over but the sudden flash of an earring and a little bit more scrutiny revealed she was indeed of the double X variety. I find this somewhat heart-warming; a game otaku and an old lady, I need to make her gaming experience as comfortable as possible, to promote the scene, I suppose. I make a little more space so she can float about a bit easier. But then the second thing strikes me: she sucks at Tetris!
She is not dropping, she is not going for Tetri, simply clearing one line at the time. This is no Tetris player – this is an abomination! I reoccupy the space I had been standing in and damn her eyes. I don’t want to appear inflexible or intolerant, but people that play Tetris for the number of lines cleared rather than the score should be shot. Or at the very least not given special treatment in crowded trains.

After Tetrisgate I spot more and more DS Lites on the train. Aqua-blue seems to be the colour of choice for women, though the best sighting was that of a salaryman, probably my age, wearing a salmon-coloured tie and playing Final Fantasy on his bright pink DS Lite. I can’t always spot what people are playing, but I do make the effort to sneak a peek when I can.

~ ~ ~

It was a particularly busy morning when I was stuck in my favourite spot, next to the door leaning against the side of the seats, as a huge crowd of commuters made their way on. Directly in front of my was an archetypal jiji, old geezer. Short in stature, greasy hair, huge pink earlobes and muttering to himself. “Ugh, so busy” or “Isn’t it busy?” People muttering to themselves is not an uncommon sight in Japan but judging by the wafts of acrid odour coming my way I guessed this jiji was labouring under the influence of some early morning alcohol abuse. But hey, we’re all stuck in this together so I just look the other way and try to breathe through my mouth.

By the time we reach the destination where 90% of the people get off, preferably all at once and with lot of pushing, there is a kafuffle near the doors. Too many people, myself and the jiji included, are trying to worm their way through the doors simultaneously. The results are predictable: a strain, a collective push and a sudden explosion of people. The old geezer has somehow been worked into a backwards position and as the crowd ejaculates out of the train he I sent back, atop the wave, and flies spectacularly to the ground. He lies sprawled on the floor like a tortoise used as a skipping stone.
I can’t help feeling partially responsible, as my elbow was definitely in contact with him at the time of the explosion, so I quickly bend down and ask him if he’s okay. “Okay, okay” he says smiling, or grimacing. He turns around and tries to get up. I grab him by the arm and help him to his feet. He smiles in gratitude and embarrassment, and I see behind me a station attendant rushing over to help him.

I’m not surprised you so often see scenes of station attendants hovering over fallen people on station platforms. I have even seen people lie on the ground screaming in mental anguish as two attendants sat on his chest to constrain them. Commuting is war, and in retrospect I am not at all surprised the old geezer felt the need for a few early morning snifters before his trip to work. There is only one way to travel: stiff as an owl.

~ ~ ~

I need to find out the brand and manufacturer of what I call the “jiji smell”. You may have noticed it when traveling on trains here; the acrid smell, a slight hint of compost, a stale odour. There is, I recon, an aftershave that most old geezers use because this is quite a common funk. It must be the Japanese equivalent of Old Spice or Imperial Leather. I must find out who makes this and kill them. Sometimes trains can smell bad enough. Just spot the guy with the rough hair, “bossa bossa” as they say here, the unkempt, straight-out-of-bed look. You can smell the dirt in their unwashed clothes, the B.O. This is bad enough as it is but each to their own. Now imagine that smell mixed with eau de jiji. It’s horrific. Sometimes it has been so bad I could do little else but squeeze my nose tight.

Which reminds me of the old lady I have shared the train with on a handful of occasions. About 5 stops before mine she gets on, stands near the door and gets off two stops down. She is ancient and bent double with age. You may have seen the old biddies who look like they’re constantly scanning the ground for lost change. I don’t know what arduous task they have been doing their whole life but it resulted in their backs making a 90 degree turn from just under the shoulder blade. It looks very painful indeed. This old lady walks like that. She has ragged clothes and a scarf around her head. She drags a wheeled metal basket with plastic bags in. I have no idea if she is homeless but it’s quite clear that she is not being helped; she obviously can’t look after herself anymore.

The smell she carries is possibly the foulest I have ever encountered. I kid you not. When she gets on you see people wrinkling their noses, looking around shocked and surprised. They see the source and feel bad for her, but nevertheless they all take a few steps back. They try to be inconspicuous, but in the end it’s quite clear what is happening as a circle of empty space evolves around her. I’ve seen people in nearby seats get up and walk to the next door, as if preparing to disembark, but never actually doing so. The smell is somewhat akin to the wet fur of a long dead Alsatian buried deep in a bog near a sulfur mine. . Sprayed with eau de jiji. It seriously makes your eyes water. You want to breathe through your mouth but your brain won’t allow it, not knowing what you’re breathing in.

And when she gets off the smell stays. It may by psychological but I swear it followed me home. I didn’t get rid of it until I had stripped, washed my clothes and had a shower. At the very least the train carriage reeks until my stop, three more down. You can see it in the pale faces of my fellow passengers. Their tolerance for train smells is much higher than mine, but even this is too much. And we’re all conflicted, torn between empathy for this old woman who is obviously in dire need of some help, and our collective desire to not stink to high Heaven.

Bog standard

One of the problems I have with being a full-time immigrant is that I have become blind to all the things that should surprise, shock or disturb me in my new home country. I am too occupied with my day to day survival that the weird, odd or comment worthy escapes my attention completely. So when friends of family come over to visit on short holidays it’s always interesting to gauge their reactions to things and pick up on what they think is exciting or mad. And if their reaction is anything to go by it would seem Japanese toilets are particularly of interest.

From my experiences there are three types of toilet in Japan: the traditional, the Western and the ridiculously technologically advanced. Western toilets can be skipped as I imagine they are too common a sight in, say, the west to warrant comment, apart from saying they are more based on the English toilets, deep pits with a layer of water at the bottom, than American ones, huge bowls with water to the brim.

Traditional toilets are an enigma to me. They are the hole-in-the-floor types, an oblong ceramic bowl in the middle of the floor with a protrusion at one end. One is suppose to squat over these to evacuate whatever needs evacuating. I have used these in extreme emergencies, but only to urinate as one can stand over the bowl upright and do one’s business that way. My balance is bad enough as it is so I dare not tempt Fate and jeopardise the cleanliness of my behind or trousers as I’m sure I’d fall backwards into the bowl or soil my garments as they are awkwardly bunched around my knees.
The way one is supposed to position oneself over one of these monstrosities is squatted down,with your personal front facing the protrusion and ideally as far forward as possible to avoid making a mess behind the toilet on the floor with any rear evacuations.

It’s the technologically marvelous toilets that get most interest. These are usually Western style bowls with a ridiculously large seat. That is to say the actual seat is normal-sized but off it hang any number of gadgets and controls. Amongst these you may find water sprays, bidets (a water spray specifically for the ladies), hot air blowers, noise drowners (a recording of a toilet flushing which sounds crap to the user but realistic to the eavesdropper and disguises any rude noises you may want disguising), heated seats, automatically raising and lowering seats often with special sensors to detect when it is appropriate, controls for the strength of the water and air sprays and the common “flush” button. These controls are either stuck to the side and back of the seat or come in separate loose consoles you can hang in a plastic grip on the wall. Using one of these toilets is often a truly magnificent experience leaving you with a sense of satisfaction and cleanliness. It can make the whole process take its sweet time but in the end it’s worth it.

The water spray technology revolves around small, snake-like tubes appearing out of nowhere in the front or back inside of the seat. There will probably even be controls for aiming though the seat holes usually aren’t big enough to spell disaster in this area. The only real problem is for the visiting foreigner who may spend a while guessing at which button means “flush” amongst all the kanji-labeled options. My advice is to lower the toilet cover before randomly trying out a few buttons as you don’t want to be sprayed in the face by the bidet.

These seats can be pricey at around 80,000 Yen (US$ 675, EUR 500) for the latest models. You’ll find that most recently built apartments will have an electrical outlet tucked discretely low on the wall next to the toilet specifically for these gadgets.

Another nice feature in most, though not all, toilets is the reservoir. Often rather than filling them with water from an unseen source, they are filled from a tap that hovers above a small sink, its plughole leading to the reservoir. That way you can wash your hands with the water that is to be used for the next flush. It’s such a simple and neat little water-saving trick and one that looks so odd when encountered for the first time a lot of tourists end up taking photographs just to show any disbelievers back home.

When it comes to office toilets you shouldn’t expect too much. Though I’m sure they exist somewhere most companies will have only Western style toilets and a few urinals; usually not quite enough to supply the whole company after a curry lunch. If there are special toilet seats they will usually be older models with just a spray,.

As for public toilets, well… luck of the draw I think describes it best. Obviously in expensive department stores you can expect something fancy, whereas at busy train stations expect the worst. I am not kidding about the latter! The one time I braved these toilets was on a drinking night and nature would not be put on hold. I stumbled to a stall and was confronted with a sight that will haunt me forever; it was everywhere! If there was any way to unsee what I saw then… ugh. Walking past these station toilets on Friday evenings can also give rise to the awful acrid smell of urine as you watch a line of salarymen await their turn. Heed my advice and try to avoid these as much as possible! For all their diets and fantastic, fresh foods the Japanese colon can produce something wicked.

I think that is all there really is to say on the subject, and I already feel I’ve said too much.


I had some frankly hilarious and disturbing images to attach to this post but Blogger is acting up and won't allow any picture uploads recently. My apologies.

Nikkei next-gen research results

This page, replete with scary Japanese text and a lot of graphs show the results of a survey by Nikkei into the purchasing trend of the last couple of weeks with regards to game consoles in Japan amongst men and women in the 16 to 49 age bracket. 1259 people contributed their answers, a detailed overview of the questionnaire can be seen on page 2.
Use your favourite web translator to read the English.

It would seem, unsurprisingly, the Nintendo DS is the clear winner this year. Interesting reading.

The paper is patient

Things have been slowing down at work, not really because there isn’t much to do, there is! No, it’s because things take a lot longer to accomplish right now. From the exporter which can take a while and ties up your PC to the converter where we check all our stuff running in code which has some seriously doubtful decision making behind it, like having to sit through the health warnings, company logos and title screen before we’re allowed to load up the test models. Whatever the reason I find myself having to kill short bursts of time and there are only so many cigarettes a man can smoke.

It started with me sitting at a colleague’s desk, as he hadn’t come in that morning yet, while I waited for the converter to boot up. He had a stack of almost-square Post-its and rather distractedly I peeled one off and started folding it. Not a few minutes later there was a small origami crane on the keyboard as I was checking my collision models. Naturally a colleague spots this and goes “ah, a crane!” School kids in Japan make these en masse for festivals and such. Something about a 1000 cranes being good luck or whatever – I’m not quite up to speed on the details. So to not be shown up said colleague folds a crane too.

Now it may be that I’m pretty competitive, deep down or maybe something stirred deep inside my childhood memory banks but before I knew it I had peeled off another Post-it and with the aid of a bent paperclip to get the smaller folds right I fashion an Inca mask, with lips, brows, a nose, earrings and whatnot. My colleagues are amazed. “Where did you learn that?” they ask. “I learned it when I was young. Don’t you know origami?”
And here another silly misconception dies. I have no idea why, as thinking about it makes little sense, but I’ve always had the impression the Japanese could fold paper. The art itself is from here and if you see the speed and craft with which shopkeepers wrap presents or the intricate way money gift envelopes are folded you’d be forgiven for thinking all of Japan is bought up on origami. Not so. Most school kids can fold a crane or a paper box to put peanut shells in but that’s about it.

For me origami began when I was a very young boy visiting my grandparents’ house. Trying to keep me busy my grandmother found an old book she had by an American stage magician called, if I recall, something-or-other Renquist. It was a massive, clothbound old tome and had little biographies of the, what I presumed were, the famous paper folding artists of the time, all American. The pages were yellow and old, the lovely smell of old books The models started out simple; a box, a star, a parrot, etc. By the end of the book there were some more challenging designs; a peacock with fully patterned tail, a seal balancing a ball, an angel. The book is long lost to me but I can conjure up its look and feel to this day. Addiction had set in almost immediately.

I knew little about the history of the art. The fact it was Japanese only became clear to me with the first book I owned, a present from parents keen to invest their offspring with a sense of art. This book, a large square one with a badly glued spine, also taught me about the history and background and focused mainly on some past Japanese masters. I joined a local origami society, not to socialize, as the members consisted mostly of a horrid kind of sandal-wearing CofE types, but because it was the easiest way to get hold of paper. There were some nice sets of Japanese patterned paper, some too gorgeous to fold. Through them, I also ordered what was to be the very first Japanese book I ever bought, I believe it was called “The Art of Origami” and was a series of two books with some incredible designs in them; brontosaurs, a seamless and almost life-like rose, a devil complete with pointy tail, five fingers on each hand, horns and a mouth with protruding tongue. It’s very strange to think back of these books now and imagine those funny little squiggles I couldn’t read at the time. That was Japanese, huh? If you had told me then that in 20 years I’d be able to actually read all that I wouldn’t have believed you. It’s probably not entirely true anyway.

Origami never fuelled any kind of desire to move to Japan, it just sort of happened. I was once folding intricate designs, the next moment I was working in Japan; the two were never connected. But coming here reminded me of the fun I used to have turning a simple square piece of paper into a tiny statuette, the precision and mathematics of the folds, the sculpting of the edges. I have on occasion picked it up again since moving here. I even visited an origami convention at a university together with another interested ex-pat. We didn’t sign up so we couldn’t join the lectures, which I presume were lessons or demos, but at the time I probably couldn’t have understood them anyway. But we did meander through the hallways with the many tables with beautiful and amazing origami on them: a tiger folded from two-sided paper, one side yellow the other black, causing a fantastic stripe effect; a dinosaur with many horns on its back, and tail, a two-tone orca, a horse that was almost realistic. I must stress for those who do not know: in origami you do not cut or tear, you only ever fold a square piece of paper. Sure, there are those who think cutting is acceptable or paper can be any shape, but they are heathens.

Mostly it’s fun to occasionally fold something just to out-Japanese my Japanese colleagues. They all stare in wide-eyed amazement that this foreigner can fold something with such detail so easily while they themselves can only manage the simple crane. I can make them feel really bad about themselves by asking them why they can’t do likewise “I thought all Japanese could fold paper”, knowing fully that this isn’t really the case. It always pleases me no end to outdo them at their own games. It’s all in the name of fun and ribaldry though, as I wink and nudge at them.

The only origami books and paper widely available in Japan are the simple, kids’ stuff. You’ll need to go to specialist shops to find the really nice patterned rice paper, but it can be found without too much bother. For books I have no idea though. We found some fantastic samples at the aforementioned origami expo but bookshops generally don’t stock anything above “how to fold a cane and goldfish” level. I can recommend anybody to give origami a go. It’s cheap and fairly easy and trains your spatial skills. Any 3D artist who can’t fold probably isn’t worth his salt. It’s also quite calming; I remember folding one particular peacock and it taking me well over two hours, all of it flying by. It is certainly helping me pass the time between exporting my level models and getting to see them running in code.

More short term goals unachieved

There is nothing much going on this Christmas weekend. I’m looking forward spending Christmas day away from work, though I do need to go in on Boxing Day and the day after. From then until the New Year is a holiday though, as is the tradition with most Japanese companies. Usually some time during the first week of January companies start opening the doors again.

So far my half-hearted attempts to purchase a Nintendo Wii have been woefully unsuccessful. I haven’t really been trying, just popping into a shop here and there when the mood took me, but Japan is suffering from a Wii-drought. As soon as new shipments come in massive queues form as if by magic and anybody with a spare hour orso may try his luck. You have to be extremely lucky in the first place to be around when a shop unwraps its new shipment, so the people that have been able to get one have been jobless or homeless. True, I could have woken up early this weekend and try some local stores but the prospect of sleeping in till noon was just too delicious to ignore. God only knows when Wiis will be plentiful again, but my guess is I won’t be until well into January, if not later. The same thing happened with the DS and DS Lite launches; anybody not crazy enough to queue had to wait a good two or three months.
I wouldn’t mind having a Wii right now, but hey, I think I‘ll survive the New Year break without one.

On the subject of abject failures; Ikea, colon minus open bracket. Because I needed some new furniture I made my way to the Kohoku branch of this establishment. The free shuttle bus from the station to the store was packed and took a lot longer than I had imagined. After all the jostling and shoving a sit down and some meatballs were in order so worming our way through the crowds of screaming kids to the large but noisy cafeteria was the first point on the agenda. After we regained our energy we slouched through the store and found some of the stuff we needed, so we approach a shop clerk at the information desk.
“Yeah, so we’re interested in items A, B and C there.”
“Let me check,” the woman says as she punches some stuff into her PC. “Ah, we have A and C but not B. You could have those two delivered soon, but B may have to wait until the New Year.”
“Um, okay, I don’t think that’s a problem. So, can we pay for B now or…”
“No, we don’t have it in stock now. Here,” she writes us a card with information, “check this website and this stock number to see when B comes back in stock again.”
“Oh, okay, thanks. So then we can order it from there?”
“Um, no, if we have it in stock you can come back here to buy it.”
“So if item B gets back in stock we can see that on-line but we have to come back all the way here to fill in our information to have it delivered at our home.”
“Yeah.”
“I think I’ll take my business elsewhere.”
“So, do you want A and C…”
“Thank you, bye-bye.”

In a country where the customer is king and emperor this attitude somewhat shook me. They were making it far too difficult to simply have some stuff delivered. In the end we found what we wanted in a cheap mail-order catalogue; almost the exact same item for about half the price and without having to go all the way to Shin-Yokohama to pay for it. Maybe I’m overreacting in my disgust at this failure but this is certainly not the attitude that will make Ikea successful in Japan; meatballs will only take you so far.

Have a merry Christmas everybody, I’m off to put the icing on the Christmas cake.

Japanese for working people

When studying Japanese at a school you usually end up learning the basic, grammatically correct and therefore pretty useless stuff. It’s all important and you need the fundamentals before you can speak as the Japanese do, but all in all it’s unlikely you’ll ever learn the terms used specifically in game development. Lucky for you,, though, most terminology is copied straight from the English, albeit with a katakana pronunciation. In this and possibly future posts I plan to educate the interested with some work-floor Japanese, useful for every day working life. Remember, though, that specific terminology can differ from company to company.
For newcomers to the language, the romaji “ou” refers to a long “oh” sound and a “u” at the end of a word is usually swallowed up. E.g., the romaji “housen mappu” referred to below is pronounced “ho-h. sen. map.”


(Game) development. Most companies will have separate divisions and you’ll be in the “kaihatsu group”.

When talking texture or memory sizes the usual, regular form of counting is used. Sixty-four is translated as sixty-four in Japanese, as are five hundred and twelve, etc. Often you can just use the single digits, as in five, one, two. Which is where these two terms come in. The Japanese like to swallow up unnecessary syllables. Two, five, six translates directly into “ni-go-roku” but that last “ku” is extraneous, so it’s usually left out. “Nigoro” is much easier on the tongue. As for 128, the 8 is often turned into a “pa”, from some different reading of the number. “Hachi” is such a mouthful, isn’t it? Though you will get by perfectly well with using regular numbers, knowing these little tricks may help you understand your colleagues a little better.

Literally “translucency”, therefore “alpha” as in “alpha map” when working with textures.

Usually texturing uses the English terminology; colour map (karamappu), bump map (bunpu mappu), etc. And though terms like face normal and vertex normal are used without confusion, normal map sounds too much like it means “a map with nothing out of the ordinary”. So the official Japanese mathematical term is often applied here; “housen map” even though “normaru mappu” isn’t unheard of.
That said, people stuck with the Japanese version of Max can see all terms, like diffusion and ambient also translated into their Japanese counterparts.


To update. You’ll use this one a lot as you redo and redo and rework and redo your stuff over the lifetime of the project.

Literally “impossibility”. This will be your standard response to the impossible tasks set to you. “Can you do this and that?” “Muri”. It is often used as “difficult” rather than an outright impossibility too, as an exasperated exclamation of how difficult your work is. “I see you working on this and that. How is that going?” “Ahhh, muri.”


“Let’s good luck!” or “Let’s try hard!” Whenever things get difficult this is the chant you share with your colleagues, as if to say “C’mon, one final push. Let’s do this!” This can be used both seriously, as a battle cry and pep talk, or sarcastically as a quiet resignation of your lot and a nose to the grindstone sense of futility.


When a game is finished and, as we say in the west, “goes gold” the Japanese say “master up”, as in the master disc is ready to be uploaded/sent.

Pajama party

I find that, on the whole, my Japanese colleagues are far too willing to spend the night at the office. Perhaps “willing” is not the right word; they are far too easily made to stay at the office overnight. Maybe they’re afraid of the boss, maybe they do have an undying loyalty to the company, maybe they are too proud, whatever the reasons, I firmly believe no good ever comes from this.

As I am always first in the office I am often greeted by the sight of colleagues sprawled over the uncomfortable sofas in the television area or slumped over their desks. In the course of the morning as I have started work I see them slowly wake up and groggily get their first coffee or brush their teeth. Maybe they’ll pop out for a quick breakfast or just sit there and yawn for a while, but it is at least 10 or 11 o’clock before they actually start work again. I have asked some until what time they were working and it is usually from between 2 to 5 o’clock at night. If deadlines are particularly desperate they may not get any sleep at all!

While at work I like to be clear headed and concentrate. I do have a reputation for working fast, but even still it is fairly obvious I can produce more in two 10 hour days, if I get a semi-good night’s sleep, than one continuous 30 hour day, let alone a few of these in a row. I downright refuse to ever work nights, mostly because it’s simply counter-productive. If I don’t have my head on a pillow for a few hours, a shower and a change of clothes I know my next working day will be wasted. I’ll make more mistakes, I’ll work slower and have less and less energy as the days go by. Luckily I have never been asked to stay overnight as refusal often offends. That isn’t to say I’ve never done it; when I got my first job in Japan and was still keen to impress I did it once or twice, but I soon phased that out. Best not let them think it is an acceptable and expectable standard.

I have often asked my colleagues, usually with in a pleading tone, why on Earth they stay overnight so often, or at all. The responses were varied. On more than one occasion the boss would organize a late meeting and rush off to catch his last train, not realizing some colleagues already had missed theirs. Or a last minute change forced them to work through the night to implement it. Or maybe a sense of pride made them work overnight just to deliver the best they can. And though commuting times can be a bit long in Tokyo, a few colleagues had such lengthy trips, well over two hours each way on some occasions, that staying overnight was simply the easiest thing to do.

The latter I can somewhat understand and unsurprisingly these colleagues were all single males. But you’ll also see fathers, family men and newlyweds staying overnight and not seeing their young offspring for a few days on end. My refusal to understand that, as well as my repeated warnings and concerns over the physical and mental health of my colleagues has earned me the role of “company father” in more than one company. “Go home already,” I plead. “Ah, JC, I wish you were my boss.” “But don’t you have kids? Didn’t you already work a 20 hour day the day before? You should really go home and get some sleep. Damn the deadline! Think of your health!” And they always laugh politely and agree, but they never act. “This just reinforced bad planning and bad decision making!” “You’re right. But the work has to be done.”

Very few companies discourage this behaviour. Some do, to their credit, but mostly it is seen as au fait, de rigeur. Often employees bring in their own bedrolls or sleeping bags and keep them under the desk, which is also where they sometimes spend the night. Sometimes companies provide a nearby apartment with a few beds in it. If you work at a very old-fashioned corporation there may even be a stinking, flea-ridden tatami room in the building for general use. If your building has regulated heating expect summer nights to be hot and sweaty and winter nights to be freezing cold. This hardly sends the message people should look after their health and try to work company hours only, does it?

If you carry yourself correctly and do your work there is no reason you, as a foreign employee, should join in this tradition. Some people may even follow your example, if you’re lucky. But all in all this seems to be a fact of Japanese development that will take a long time to be stamped out. Get used to coming in in the mornings to an office filled with stale air and sleeping bodies strewn across the floor. Watch in horror as your colleagues become zombies that need regular naps during the day to survive another 12 hours. You’ll have to develop a thick skin and not be swayed by the plight of your colleagues; too much empathy and you’ll be spending nights too, just to be a “team player”. Even in work we all make our own decisions and though I feel for them I will not compromise my own health and productivity for the sake of fitting in, not when it concerns such destructive behaviour as this.

In conclusion, though the attitude is more must-do than can-do, I have the deepest respect for my colleagues’ sense of duty; if something absolutely needs to be done every effort will be made, uncomplainingly, to try and get it done, to the detriment of personal health and, sadly, long-term productivity. In an ideal world we’d see a happy medium: the work-hard, no bitching attitude of the Japanese with the protection and enforcement of working conditions that western law has been making great strides in.

Ragless

The entrance area to our building is not only a popular place for us smokers to blow second-hand cancer at the innocents who come and go all through the day but it seems is also a mobile phone hotspot. Whether the offices here have a “no mobiles” rule, whether they are too noisy or maybe because the reception is better there the hallway and pavement outside the office always have a few employees conducting telephone calls. I often try to listen in but it usually is boring work stuff; setting up meetings, asking for information, etc. Except for last night, when it was very interesting.

The Japanese don’t usually lose their rag but when they do (and you’re not on the receiving end of it) it is a magnificent sight to behold, and a little bit scary. Social etiquette goes right out the window and suddenly the desire to not stick out like the soon-to-be hammered down nail or the proviso to never make waves is all but forgotten. Voices are raised in volume and if you don’t understand the language the similarity to a pit bull terrier in a dogfight is remarkable. Commands are barked out, at great volume, regardless of other people who may be in the vicinity. In short bursts like a machine gun the target is questioned and the aggrieved has a slight tinge of whininess in his voice. Aggressive communication is almost exclusively broadcast as questions. “Why don’t you this?” “Why don’t you that?” “Why are you such a turd?”

Last night’s example was a small black/gray haired man in his late 40s or early 50s who obviously had had enough of whomever he was talking to. He paced the length of the hallway and the area outside for at least 20 minutes, constantly shouting into his phone so loudly that I’m sure they must have heard it streets away. At one point he was standing right on the pavement as innocent passers-by cast worried glances and picked up their pace.
At first I felt sorry for the recipient but listening to my side of the conversation (how could I not?) it became pretty clear he had it coming.
“Why didn’t you answer? Just send an answer. To anybody. Why do we have to wait? Did you lose it? We’re waiting on…no, now. To anybody. By email. We need an answer. Why don’t you answer?” He sometimes calmed down a little only to pipe up again moments later.

Looking back on that it is obvious the language itself isn’t very conducing to aggravation. Just reading the paraphrased transcript hardly communicates the vim and vigor of his demeanor. I guess this explains why angry Japanese shout, and I mean really shout. There is no good Japanese equivalent to the verb, noun and adjective “feck”. Maybe you can get a better feel of the argument if I rewrite it slightly.
“Why the feck didn’t you fecking answer? Just send a fecking answer. To any-fecking-body. Why do we have to fecking wait, you feck? Did you fecking lose it? We’re waiting the feck on…no, fecking now. To any-fecking-body. By e-fecking-mail. We need a fecking answer. Why the feck don’t you fecking answer?”
Yeah, that conveys the aggression much better. Maybe I should make it my mission to introduce the word “feck” into everyday Japanese conversational language. They all know what it means anyway, and my colleagues hear it from me often enough. If we all stick together and make a communal effort we can bring Japanese into line with English swearing averages!

In the end I couldn’t extend my cigarette break any longer and had to sheepishly pass the man in the hallway on my way to the lifts. My hats off to him, he was angry and he was damned if he was going to let it slide. I would have loved to hear the end of it, but duty called. Sightings like these are rare enough and I can highly recommend taking the time to observe them!

Go to shopping: Donki

What do you think of when you hear the name “Don Quixote”? A 17th century comedic masterpiece that ushered in the era of the modern novel? The knight of the rueful countenance, an empathetic old fool questing for his beloved Dulcinea? Windmills? An early 80s nerd-rock duo? Or a cute, blue penguin selling cheap goods?
In Japan “Don Quixote”, or in common parlance “Donki”, is a chain store notable for its cheap goods and claustrophobic shop layouts and has as its mascot the aforementioned blue penguin. The mind boggles. Somewhere in marketing one employee is shaking his head in disbelief that he got away with this.

Obviously places like 100 Yen Shops cannot supply everything and this is where Donki comes in. If you need some cheap electronics, say a washing machine, towel racks, or some clothes, bicycle or tire repair kits, huge bottles of sake or socks Donki has it all. It may not offer the latest and best products but certainly the cheapest stuff. Some shops even have supermarket sections where you can get your food and more importantly alcohol cheaper than most places.

It’s also a good shop to visit if you want to know about the Japanese ability to make the most of the expensive real-estate. Donki shops are usually massively dense mazes of stuff and it’s easy to get lost or loose your bearing and if you’re even slightly claustrophobic it’s best to steer well clear. It’s obvious they’re not going for the rich, ostentatious market; our local Donki is half building, half reinforced permanent tent and spills out onto the street and parking area. The range of goods on display is staggering. Donki and your local recycle shop are probably the best and cheapest way to kit out your unfurnished apartment when you first come to Japan.

Like every chain store in Japan the mascot features heavily and to induct more people into the cult there are even games available from the website, as well as loyalty an gift card offers. Visiting the stores can only be done in short bursts as the constant muzak is an endless loop of the Donki song. Approach with caution!

Location: There are quite a few branches dotted around the country. Check the website for your local Donki; there will probably be one not too far away from wherever the Hell you are.
Website: http://www.donki.com/
Map: Check the shop index here.

Trials of the global consumer

Though the whole process is somewhat annoying I do understand the thinking behind region-locking. Film and game industries want or need to control the separate markets as each region has its own laws and languages. Luckily it has never been a real issue for me; the DS, which has turned out to be my main gaming platform, is thankfully region-free and even though the rather pricey Japanese DVDs offer foreign films in their original languages, albeit with a Japanese front-end, my dirt cheap, mail-order Chinese DVD player has worked well playing my global collection of DVDs. Until recently, that is, when it gave up the ghost and refused to read any more discs.

It quickly became clear that asking straight out if the players on the shelves in reputable stores were region-free would guarantee a negative response. All shopkeepers were delightfully apologetic but insisted that only Japanese region players were available, as by law I presume. One glanced at me sideways and mentioned I might try Akihabara, but he said it in a “but course I wouldn’t know about that kind of thing” tone of voice. The informative and helpful foreigner community gave me some insights and directions to several shops, indeed in Akihabara, but also mentioned that even here “region-free” is only talked about in hushed tones and never advertised. There was nothing for it, I would have to make the long and arduous journey to Electric Town, a place that with its crowds, noise and maids handing out maid café leaflets somewhat gives me the pip, aggravated by my traditional weekly headache.

Though big stores like Laox have foreign goods sections they weren’t particularly region-free. In stead they offered players for separate regions other than Japan, which wasn’t going to be helpful. Several coffees later and I was having no luck. Even in the backstreet shops asking straight out if players were region-free was guaranteed a nervous but ultimately negative response. Subterfuge was in order.

One hint I was given was to pretend I’d be moving back to the UK soon which would, in a roundabout way, lead me to the region-free players. I took a deep breath and entered one of the many Duty Free shops. There on a shelf were a few DVD/HDD players, one of which caught my eye. The helpful Indian shopkeeper, respectably suited, hovered nearby. “Forget you know Japanese. You’re a noob here.” I told myself, getting in the mood. I approach the man in English and he sprung to my aid.

“Um, these players. I, um, will probably be moving back to England in a year orso, um, will they, will this one, um…”
“Yes, sir,” he replied, and proceeded to fill me in on the details.
“How long will you be staying in Japan?”
“Um, about a year orso.”
He obviously wants to know if Duty Free is in order.
“It probably won’t be duty free for me” I say.
Damn, too keen. He seems unsure.
“How long have you been in Japan?”
“Um, about a year orso.”
Damn, I gave that same answer before, about when I’d be going back. I start to sweat; I really should have fleshed out my character. I should have written a hinterland, a history. I could have been Peter Gynt, 35, an English financial advisor, married with two young daughters. I’m just in Japan for a short-term contract but may stay longer, but only an extra year or two or three. I could have joked about this. But no, I’m winging it, badly.
The shopkeeper seems unfazed. He probably realizes anyway, or am I being to paranoid? Maybe he can see me sweating.
He starts to explain about PAL and NTSC and leads and antenna cables. I nod.
“What kind of television do you have?”
“Oh, um, a Sony Wega, quite an old one.”
Dammit, an old one! Why did I say that? I just said Id been in Japan for a year orso. My badly researched lie is falling apart.
He goes to check if they have this model in stock. I take a few deep breaths. I had no idea I was such a bad liar. Yes, they have it in stock but it needs to be brought over from another shop, so please hang around a bit.
“Okay, sure, thanks.” Damn, more time to cover.
The guy’s Japanese boss joins us at the register and starts to talk Japanese to him. I have to remind myself I cannot speak Japanese here, nor understand it.
“What country is he from?” he asks.
I start to look up but remember not to. I stare around me like a clueless tourist.
“England.”
“Oh, did you talk to him about the plug?”
I want to say I have a bag of plug conversions at home already but bite my lip.
The shopkeeper starts into his plug conversion speech but I try to cut him off as soon as I can. I want to get out of here. Where is that damn player.

15 minutes and a whole lot of sweaty embarrassment later I walk out with a region-free DVD/HDD recorder. The hoops one must jump through to enjoy one’s own, legally purchased, DVD collection. I feel bad about badly lying to the shopkeeper as he was incredibly helpful. It’s all part of life’s rich pageant, I suppose.

I do understand the thinking behind region locking but I certainly don’t like it. It all seems such a waste in Japan. I suppose it’s easier to understand in Europe where people want to have early access to American films and games, as Europe always seems to be one of the last to enjoy these things. But in Japan? I have had conversations with colleagues about importing and pretty much noone bothers. DVDs, they say, must have subtitles or they won’t understand too much of them. Games are as unplayable to them in English as they are to us in Japanese, i.e. it’s do-able but such a pain that we usually don’t bother. I for one play the games I really want to sit down and enjoy in English; having to translate makes it hard work which is sort of against the whole idea of playing games in the first place.

I suspect one could open the entire Japanese market, erase region-locking in players and game consoles and it wouldn’t affect the markets in the slightest. It would, however, make life as an international consumer and immigrant a whole lot easier. But then we are a minority, so why would anyone care? All I really need to do is write myself a convincing alter-ego to use in these kinds of situations in the future. Maybe an international relations advisor and consultant, Hugo Victor, 37, from Woking, divorced with one young son and huge monthly alimony payments. I’m in Japan for a short-term contract for research and may or may not get a two year extension, depending on my ability to buy a region-free DVD player.

The happy mailman

During my increasingly frequent cigarette breaks it is not uncommon for me to exchange bows and mumbled greetings with the endless stream of mailmen and delivery boys that come to the different businesses in our building. Indeed, I think my neck muscles have developed quite beautifully since I’ve moved to Japan and I can cast a sharp nod at 50 paces with deadly accuracy.

There is one mailman in particular who shines out wit his friendliness. It started with the usual “Your Japanese is very good” after I had asked him which floor he wanted when we shared a lift. At first I cynically, and arrogantly, thought he was just impressed to be in contact with a real life foreigner. But when I later spotted him cheerily wishing the girls on the floor below ours a good day and they all chirped back at him in unison, followed by another comment of his about me working late one evening it became clear that this guy is genuinely friendly and seemingly happy in his profession.
Needless to say I am quite jealous.

Generally it appears people in Japan, no matter how tedious or badly paid their work is, always exude an air of friendly helpfulness. From the old ladies who stand next to escalators to warn people to take care when stepping onto the escalator to the bin men and apartment building overseers, they all greet you with a smile and will bend over backwards to help you. And to top it all you never give tips here. It seems only the civil servants are massively inconvenienced and put out by clients requesting them to do their job, the miserable rotters.. Everywhere else the idea of service with a humble smile is the standard and though job satisfaction may be patchy you would never know it judging by the zeal with which people attend to their tasks.

This is in stark contrast to Britain, of course, where even the most handsomely salaried menial work can give rise to vitriol and bitching as if it were a genetic disposition to find fault and pain in everything life has to offer. Living in Japan has really spoiled me, to the extend I expect faultless, friendly service wherever I travel, especially in countries where one is supposed to give tips. I hardly ever get my expectations met, of course.

One thing I do notice, however, is that the recipients of Japan’s excellent service, the customers, are often very unresponsive. I often see people taking their change and turning away without acknowledging the friendly service for one instant. I always make the effort to say a friendly “thank you” to the shopkeepers; it’s the least I can do.

For now I must find ways to avoid the mailman. We have already exhausted most of the possible conversation topics, leaving only “what is your country?” and “what is your blood-type?” as well as the occasional “cold, isn’t it?” One of the great bonuses of living in Tokyo is that, paradoxically, the huge density of its population pretty much guarantees a solitary existence, despite foreigners sticking out like a big-nosed thumb. The last thing I want is to get roped into chit-chat with someone who so obviously enjoys his work that it makes me feel depressed with my inability to do likewise.

Salary overview 2006

I have often alluded to the fact the salaries in the Japanese game industry are lower than those in the west without ever letting myself get pinned down on the details, and with good reason! Salary details are incredibly hard to find, and so far I haven’t been that successful, but I have at least garnered enough data to present a rough picture of the situation which is, if personal email queries are anything to judge by, what people are interested in most.

Some important things you need to keep in mind:
Some of the Japanese salaries quoted below are nothing more than educated guesses! It is very hard to find these figures as game companies don’t usually quote salaries on their recruit pages. If you’re feeling optimistic you could think it is because they want to find good candidates and not scare them off with salary preconceptions. If, like me, you are more pessimistic, you may think it’s because salary is the one thing they cannot use to court potential employees. They must rely on their willingness to work for your company alone as salaries are too low to attract anybody.
The figures I did find are for Japanese companies and Japanese employees. So what of foreigners? There are two schools of thought in this area. One thinks the only foreigners foolish enough to move to Japan are those desperate to work in games, so they can be exploited and paid less than their Japanese colleagues. Another thinks of foreigners as valuable employees that bring in outside knowledge and expertise that can benefit the company and due to their outsider status they can circumvent social etiquette and demand higher salaries. Whichever you face depends largely on the company and how you present yourself.
The salaries quoted are yearly salaries; as a full-time employee you will be part of the bonus scheme which skews the monthly income somewhat. It also doesn’t reflect tax, which is pretty decent in Japan, and benefit deductions, cost of living or holidays. All these figures can do for you is to give you an extremely rough indication of what kind of salary you may be looking at or have to negotiate for. A very rough, big picture painted with broad brushstrokes is what I’m getting at here, do not quote these figures as well-researched proof!
The split between junior and senior isn’t as pronounced in Japan as it is in the west. Often the most important factor in deciding your wages and seniority is age, with people in their twenties earning less than people in their thirties, regardless of talent or experience. For convenience I have upheld the split between junior and senior in the figures below with junior in Japan meaning people in their early twenties, and senior meaning people from their thirties onwards.
Salaries in similar careers are higher, sometimes much higher. IT workers for example could earn twice as much as a games programmer. If you have exceptional skills and great Japanese abilities you are probably wasting your talents in the game business. Certainly if you’re out to make money games is probably the worst choice. So a desire to work in the Japanese games industry is a must, but it does open you up to exploitation.
Foreign companies in Japan seem to have higher salaries though sometimes they can take the mickey and offer equal or lower salaries than Japanese companies. Like most things it is highly recommended to shop around! Like every business experience counts for a lot, so you may need to accept a bad offer for your first job in Japan; having Japanese experience makes you a more attractive prospect for future employers.
Salaries increase somewhat with promotions but generally not by much. As in the west the very best way to improve your salary is to find a new place of employment. Job-hopping is slowly losing its stigma in Japan but be warned that too many short-term engagements on your resume still reflects badly on you. Make sure you are at least comfortable with your salary when you accept a job as pay-rises are hard to come by once you’ve started. Be warned that aggressive pay negotiation will prolong the employer’s decision making process immensely!
Remember that once you have signed your contract you have accepted the salary on offer and the conditions that go with it! It is no use complaining that you’re not earning enough or, say, start a blog to complain about the bonus system. Go into every job interview well informed and decide what you want before you sign any contract.

The following conversion has been used, as of December 13, 2006:

1 US$ = 0.507 GBP = 117.160 JPY
US$ and GPB are rounded off to the nearest 1000, JPY to the nearest 100,000 to keep the figures easy to read.

Average salaries in the U.S.
U.S.
US$
GBP

JPY

Programmer (jr)
73,000
38,000
8,600,000
Programmer (snr)
90,000
46,000

10,600,000

Artist (jr)
61,000
31,000
7,200,000
Artist (snr)
68,000
35,000
8,000,000
Designer (jr)
54,000
28,000
6,400,000
Designer (snr)
70,000
36,000
8,300,000
Audio Designer
47,000
24,000
5.600.000
Assistant Producer
66,000
34,000
7.800.000
Producer
127,000
65,000
14.900.000

Average salaries in the U.K.
U.K.
US$
GBP

JPY

Programmer (jr)
46,000
23,000
5,400,000
Programmer (snr)
73,000
37,000

8,600,000

Artist (jr)
42,000
21,000
4,900,000
Artist (snr)
70,000
35,000
8,100,000
Designer (jr)
44,000
22,000
5,100,000
Designer (snr)
64,000
32,000
7,400,000
Audio Designer
48,000
24,000
5.600.000
Assistant Producer
46,000
23,000
5,400.000
Producer
79,000
40,000
9,300.000

Average salaries in Japan
Japan
US$
GBP

JPY

Programmer (jr)
26,000
13,000
3,000,000
Programmer (snr)
43,000
22,000

5,000,000

Artist (jr)
24,000
13,000
2,800,000
Artist (snr)
41,000
21,000
4,800,000
Designer (jr)
28,000
14,000
3,200,000
Designer (snr)
39,000
20,000
4,500,000
Audio Designer
35,000
18,000
4,000.000
Assistant Producer
39,000
20,000
4,500.000
Producer
52,000
26,000
6,000.000

Comparative chart
Sources: Game Developer Magazine, IGDA, The Chaos Engine, Seesaa.net, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Job Direct and numerous company websites.

Help Japanmanship!
Should this post be interesting to enough people I may be persuaded to keep my data updated and corrected as much as possible. As such I would ask readers to provide me with reliable sources for this data and other information which can help expand the usefulness and accuracy of these kinds of comparative charts. In particular I am interested in average working hours, tax rates, holiday pay and more detailed salary information. Also it may be interesting to add Australia, Europe and other popular areas to the whole if such information can be found.
Please use the email address in the side-bar to send me any additional information, preferably sources, which can help with this. Anonymity, if required, can be guaranteed.

Go to shopping: the 100 Yen Shop

Until last year orso shops printed the prices for goods so as to exclude the sales tax. It was a very confusing time because you always had to pay a little more than you were expecting. Now the law forbids that and all quoted prices include tax. So legally I suppose we must talk of 105 Yen shops, but they somehow slipped through the net and are still advertising themselves as 100 Yen shops, which makes them a suitable subject to celebrate this blog’s 100th post.

As the name suggests everything in the shop is 100 Yen (+5% sales tax = 105 Yen), some of the smaller independent shops sell for a little lower to make the final price, including tax, exactly 100 Yen, but mostly it’s 105 Yen per item (US$ 0.90, EU 0.67). Often cheaper goods are bundled, like 5 kitchen sponges for 105 Yen and sometimes they cheat with more expensive items, like cardboard shelves costing 105 Yen per section and really needing 6 sections if they are to remain upright.

When it comes to stock they pretty much sell most things any starting immigrant could require to furnish his new apartment: cups, saucers, pots, pans, cooking utensils, crockery, chopsticks, cutting knives, cutting boards, pegs, hangers, slippers, glasses, teapots, lunchboxes, tote bags, soap dishes, towel racks, towels, masks, toothbrushes, toothpaste, garden tools, tools, nails, screws, boxes, trays, socks, shawls, hats, brushes, brooms, Tupperware, portable ashtrays, ashtrays, lighters, lighter fuel, sweets, breath mints, toys for the kids, notebooks, folders, origami paper, name stamps, name stamp ink, signs, empty VHS and audio tapes, single CD-ROMs, CD and DVD cases, washing nets, washing up liquid, washing powder, pens, pencils, charcoal, rulers, straightedges, cutters, watering cans, reed curtains, soaps, wet-wipes, band-aids, plates, bowls, mugs, cosmetics, aprons, in short everything that isn’t too large or too expensive.
In the festive seasons they also sell the required decorations, like baubles, tinsel, boar statuettes, wreaths, cards, candles, etc.

They probably make a profit on the cheaper items while taking a loss on the slightly more expensive ones. Either way it’s obvious they are making an overall profit because there are quite a few of these shops, there have been for a while and they still continue on.

Once you have furnished your apartment with all the essentials 100 Yen shops are a great place to quickly and cheaply fill all the cupboards. For visiting tourists they are a good place to pick up cheap presents, like soup bowls or chopsticks; the recipient need never know how little you paid if you make up a nice story about how you bought them at a traditional handicraftsman’s shop in the middle of nowhere. "No, it may feel remarkably like cheap plastic but it’s really lacquered wood!”

Location: 100 Yen shops are everywhere, except in the more up market shopping areas.
Website: There are many companies that run 100 Yen shops, like Seria, Daiso, Can do, Oh Three, Watts, etc.
Map Seriously, everywhere!

Christmas in Japan

The celebration of a random date representing the birth of a religious character by over-eating, binge drinking and rampant consumerism has made its way to Japan, in one form or another but in many ways it is a different beast to what you’re used to.

From some time in November onwards you’ll start seeing Christmas decorations appearing in shops. One time as early as October I spotted a Christmas tree in the entrance hall of a mall. Regular trees get adorned with lights and curiously mummified remains of Col. Sanders, that stand in front of every KFC, are suddenly wearing a very tatty father Christmas outfit. Christmas greetings in Engrish shout out from posters and shop windows. Restaurants and retailers start giving out seasonal coupons for discounts. Muzak, already in a dire state in Japan, gets taken down a few notches with rock, house and Harmonium versions of Christmas carols and pop hits on a non-stop loop. And just when you think they couldn’t copy Western Christmas tradition any more…they don’t. This is it. Christmas in Japan. There is nothing else.

No Emperor’s speech. No presents. No trees in the house. No special family dinner, and certainly no turkey. No crackers. No copious amounts of alcohol. No turkey sandwiches until February. No socks from grandmother. No thank you letters. No cards. No mass. No Boxing Day hangovers. No secret Santa. No James Bond or “Bridge over the River Kwai" or “It’s a Wonderful Life”. No Christmas cake or mince pies.

Christmas in Japan only takes on the outward appearance but doesn’t follow the real traditions. What does happen, apparently, is that young couples go out for a meal at restaurants that suddenly become very expensive; they offer Christmas courses, though not any special Christmas food, at highly inflated prices. The couple may then spend the night at a hotel, again at a highly inflated price. But that’s about it.

For Japan the real seasonal celebration is the coming of the New Year. Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve the family sits round the table to eat soba and mochi. Mochi is a very nice sticky rice-cake; you can see street stalls and displays where kids can make their own by using a large wooden mallet to grind rice into a sticky goo in large stone bowls. It is said a dozen orso old people die every year by choking on these rice cakes.

In the first few days of January, though preferably the 1st, people go, en masse, to the local or biggest temple to pray for good fortune. Famous places like Asakusa are crowded with jostling masses; a bit like an out-of-control religious rock concert. You make your way to the front, burn some incense and waft the smoke over you. You then go to the trough and throw in some 5 or 50 Yen coins, ring the bell, clap your hands and pray. And then you’re pushed out of the way so the other half million patrons behind you can do the same.
It’s probably better to go to your local, smaller temple. Buy yourself a fortune, remembering to tie it to the tree if it’s a particularly bad one. Buy an arrow with an enma featuring the year’s zodiac animal on it; 2007 is the year of the boar, apparently. Decorate your home’s entrance hall with said arrow and any other boar imagery you can find.

Before the New Year it is also customary to send out cards. This is a big business in and of itself. You can either buy the postcards from shops or you buy pre-paid cards that you can print yourself and massive books with CD-ROMs full of clipart, heavily featuring the animal of choice, the boar, can be bought at bookshops. Usually though the home-made variety center around the family and kids; especially young parents will plaster photos of their offspring looking presentable all over the card. Businesses too send them out and take the opportunity to advertise with them.
If you have suffered a bereavement or other bad fortunes you do not send out cards, as that is bad form. In stead you send out cards telling people you won’t be sending them a card. The mind boggles.

Children are the stars of the new year celebrations; they get given presents, usually envelopes with money. Hence this season has the same commercial importance Christmas has in the west. Everybody puts in their bid for the juvenile Yen and the winner, the provider of this year’s hot item, can expect a nice little dink in their yearly earnings. In games too you will see massive publicity with this year focusing, obviously, on the Nintendo Wii and Sony’s Playstation 3.
Last year it was interesting to see how the DS trampled all over the PSP because of its IPs. This year I expect to see similar results. It’s a lot harder to sell an expensive machine for Ridge Racer and Resistance to the under-twelves than it is to sell them a cheaper console with Zelda and Wario. A Nintendogs or Mario title for the new year would have sealed Nintendo’s success.

As you can see there is plenty to be going on with in this festive season but homesick foreigners can go to the many Irish or English pubs and enjoy Japanese versions of Christmas dinner along with the many other drunk, bitching gaijin. Or, like me, you can get your mum to send you a home-made Christmas cake and stock up on booze so you can spend Christmas at home, in front of your disgustingly huge television (fingers crossed), drunk out of your tiny little mind.

Merry Christmas and all that!

Bonus Day

There are some things that will never change, and that isn’t always a bad thing. Salaries are traditionally paid out on the 25th of the month and bonuses on the 10th of December and the 10th of June if your company does it twice yearly. If the 25th or 10th falls on a weekend or holiday it gets shifted to the earliest previous working day. Banks must do a hell of a lot of business in December and certainly shopping areas suddenly get very crowded as everybody has some spare cash on them for a change

As I make my way to the station on Friday morning. I walk past my bank but see with dismay it is still closed; another curse of the early worm. I know I must spend the morning still not knowing if my “bonus” was paid in. Thinking of it, the closest ATM to my office is a fair way away, so it probably won’t be until the evening.
When my colleagues come in it is a hot topic of conversation. Mr. Congenial, named here entirely without sarcasm as he is possibly the nicest guy you’ll ever get to meet in the games industry, tells me there is some question over whether the money will be in by today or whether we have to wait until Monday. This sends a cold shiver down my spine. Mr. Quiet sits in between me and Mr. Congenial and tells me he is planning to check his account after the lunch break. That’s something at least. Mr. Congenial and Mr. Quiet, it bears telling, are two fantastic artists and I am very glad to be working with them, though their frequent overnight stays at the office give me and my refusal to do likewise a bad name.

While waiting for a build on the converter to check some unimportant texture changes I felt compelled to make I chat some more with Mr. Congenial about the whole self-evaluation system. They are pleasantly shocked and mock-outraged when they learn of my scheme of over-grading myself. They had both been “truthful”, or at least humble enough, to mark themselves with a few Bs. “Bad move,” I assure them, “they’ll just agree with you even if they had intended to mark you higher. Do like me and score yourself too high! They’ll never drop it down too much because that would cause friction and who knows, they may even agree with it.” “So what did you score yourself?” “A few As and a few S marks.” Their eyes widen in disbelief, and their faces shout “you smarmy get!” at me, though probably in Japanese. “What were your final scores then?” “All As.” They suddenly see the truth in what I am saying and their outraged laughed dies away into a sort of retrospective regret. They tell me that means I will get some extra bonus above and beyond what I am owed. I doubt that.
(As you can see, I am an actual practitioner of Gamesmanship. Those posts aren’t just for fun!)

I tell them if my bonus is rubbish I will have a stern talk with the boss about salaries promised and salaries paid out. They are very supporting of that idea until I realize they want me to be the aggressive foreigner on their behalf, as it were. I think it prudent to shy away from the subject before I get carried away and do something I may regret.

For lunch I skulk off to the coffee shop and have a quiet sandwich while I listen to This Sceptered Isle. I always enjoy these short breaks away from the office and my monitor. I drink coffee, smoke too much and dream away for half an hour. When I get back someone has just started up Blue Dragon on our office’s unnecessarily huge television. A crowd of us gathers round to watch and there is a lot of talk about character design and XBoxen. The general consensus is that Blue Dragon looks a little bit pants, graphically and gameplay-wise, and that the RPG hardcore crowd will love it but probably noone else will. Later in the day I read about the Xbox360/Blue Dragon bundle being sold out and 200,000 units having been sold of the game itself. It’s always difficult to keep office opinion and market realities separated. Too often I catch myself making assertions about the Japanese market based on what a handful of colleagues think.

Mr. Quiet comes back from lunch and tells us the bonus has indeed been paid in. A general sense of relief washes over us, especially me. But I still don’t know if I have been stiffed or not and I won’t know until this evening. The afternoon goes tortuously slow and as soon as it’s time I leave the office. To Hell with unpaid overtime.
As I get into town I make a beeline for my cash-machine, press the button for English menus and do a balance check. It’s all there. I have to remind myself this is my salary, not a bonus, but the feeling of stupid gratitude towards my employer’s magnanimity crops up. To suddenly find a large chunk of money in you account is always welcome and I catch myself smiling, but this is my salary and in stead of paying it me over the year they have held it back for 6 months. Why am I feeling grateful? I compose myself and take out some pocket money. I do some maths and figure out that yes, I did get some over and above what I was owed, but it is so little it hardly makes a difference. In retrospect the money that one could actually call a “bonus” doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

Later on in that weekend I will spend too much money on an insanely large new television, something I absolutely do not need, which will arrive in time for Christmas. With all the stress and frustration at work it’s surprising how a little consumer therapy can cheer me up so. I make some half-hearted attempts at chasing down a Wii but they’re still sold out everywhere. No mind, I’ll get one whenever. I wouldn’t want to play it until my obscenely large television arrives anyway.

I wonder if I’ll manage to spend my entire “bonus” before the year is out. My guess is yes.