Kitto katsu! It's December, and for Japan and the rest of the world at large, that means it's test time for all schoolchildren. Tests have always been a big part of the Japanese education system (as in, a majority part), and that kind of stress can really get to kids. So it's traditional for parents to buy snacks for their kids, to help keep their spirits up. Because of the traditional expression kitto katsu (you're sure to win!), anything that includes the syllables ka and tsu in that order is considered good luck. Chicken or pork cutlets (chikin katsu and tonkatsu) are popular meals this time of year. For some reason, katsuo (a popular type of fish), isn't one of the lucky food items, though.
As well, there is what's probably the most fortuitous case of linguistic coincidence in recent history. If you read today's title and thought "Nestlé" or "Hershey's", then bingo! Nestlé makes a mint every year with Kit Kat bars in Japan. There are a few varieties that are sold year round, but most flavors are seasonal. So far in my stay in Japan, I have seen or tried (in addition to regular KitKats) dark chocolate, bitter chocolate, white chocolate, cookies and cream, caramel, TWO different types of green tea, orange-chocolat (French style), brandy and orange (yes, with a bit of alcohol in it), kiwi-fruit, chestnut, azuki bean, peach, muskmelon, strawberry, cherry, and cherry blossom flavors. I'm sure I've still missed a few.
So, if you know any Japanese students out there in need of a pickmeup this exam season, be sure to wish them kitto katsu!. A KitKat probably wouldn't hurt, either.
Last week, I brought up the idea of arcade card games, but I wasn't very impressed with what I had to say once I read it over later. Blame it on lack of time or sleep, or whatever, but I really want to do it right this week. Please bear with me.
Collectible Card Arcade Games (CCAGs) have in recent years become pretty much ubiquitous in Japan. Every place where kids are likely to be, from game centers to shopping malls to department stores to train stations, is likely to have at least a few of the more popular titles. So why are they so popular?
First of all, they capitolize on two major likes of the elementary school boy crowd: cool cards and cool attack animations. The cards themselves have bar-codes that provide all the information the game machine needs, which isn't much, actually. It's the variety and number of cards in total that's more interesting. Some of my students have multiple three-ring binders just for cards -- one each for Mushi King, Dino Kids, and the non-electronic Pokemon card game. It's all I can do to enforce the "no cards in the classroom and I mean it!!!" rule sometimes.
In the meantime, I have students who can pronounce "Parasaurolophus," but can't always remember the correct answer to "How are you today?"
The game machines are small things -- the perfect size for their target elementary school audience. There's a small E-reader where the player swipes his or her favorite card, and poof the monster/dinosaur/beetle/anime character appears, ready for battle. Then all they have to do is hit one of the three buttons in front of them, and see what happens. If they win the round (their button choice beats the computer's or other player's), then their character whoops their opponent.
If that sounds familiar, well... Yes, these games really are a glorified version of Rock-Paper-Scissors. Except for a few of the girls' games, which are beat-rhythm games (tap the button intime with the music). The games featured above include Dinosaur King, Mushiking, Dragon Ball, Naruto, Plicure 5, and Oshare Majo (Fashion Witch), which is part beat-rhythm game, part dress-up dolls.
Mushiking and Dinosaur King have also produced handheld spinoffs. The DS version of Dinosaur King was released on November 22nd, and is supposedly on its way to American shores sometime in 2008.
The adult-oriented card games, like Lord of Vermilion, have a much more advanced interface: a table-screen, which can read the cards as they are placed, allowing the player to choose positions and strategies against their opponent. The main difference between this system and the sort of projection hardware featured near the start of the Yu-Gi-Oh animated series is simply one of scale. Future versions of the technology may prove to be interesting.
As for me, however, I think I'll stick with Freecell.
Source: My local shopping center
And now, your Weekly Dengeki ratings. We haven't lost any titles from the Top 50 list since last week, though Dragon Quest IV has, surprisingly, been bumped down to 4th place within a week. Normally, the Dragon Quest name is strong enough to keep a game up high on the list for a long, long time, so expect to see that title in this section for a while longer. For those interested, the games which successfully usurped the top position? Wii Fit (Wii, #3), SD Gundam Generation Spirits (PS2, #2), and the latest detective adventure starring Master Reiton (DS, #1).
For a bit of clarification, that entry for Disgaea Portable is actually a subscription for regular access to the game's wireless battle network, which went active on November 29th. It costs 2,940 yen (about $25) in Japan.
Recently, Nintendo announced the addition of Treasure Hunter G and Langrisser II to its Virtual Console lineup for the Wii. Since neither of these were ported over to America the first time, availability in English doesn't seem likely at this point. But here's Wii-inspired retroview, anyway.
Treasure Hunter G was the very last RPG released by Square on the Super Famicom (Super Nintendo) system, way back in 1996. It's notable for its use of 3D modeling for the game-sprites, and the odd quasi-tactical battle system. When enemies are encountered, the local area of the level is altered into a grid, with movement and action costs (ACT points) are determined by the color of the tile, which is in turn affected by enemy proximity. Perhaps the closest game to it in terms of play would be Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter
The game's story is based around the typical Dark King plot, but with characters ranging from an apathetic humpback whale, to a castratto (only one I've ever seen in an RPG), all the way to a self-proclaimed Mad Scientist, things are rarely dull.
The second game, Langrisser II, was originally for the Sega Genesis / Mega Drive system. While the first game in the series was brought over to America, Langrisser II (and its Super Famicom remake, Der Langrisser) was left by the wayside.
The game is an army-based strategy game, with each player character able to hire and lead a number of troop units based on their class. Battles are shown in a separate screen, as up to ten little guys rush straight at ten other little guys, in the hopes of wiping each other out. Like many games of this style, Langrisser II has a storyline heavy on the politics, and a decidedly Germanic flavor overall.
Both of these games were made available at the beginning of December, for 800 Wii points each. If you can manage the Japanese, they might be worth a look.
Sakura Wars is a series with an odd history. One part dating sim to two parts steampunk mecha strategy game, with the trappings and pacing of a Japanese anime, this series is in many ways a unique little flower.
The newest addition to the series roster, Sakura Taisen : Kimi aru ga tame (Cherry Blossom War : In order to have you) continues one half of the series' tradition while removing another. The game includes the social aspects that has made the franchise what it is, but the gameplay itself is action-oriented, making it much closer to a dungeon-crawl in style.
To go with this game, Sega has rendered unto us the gaming public an array of interesting, if slightly odd, swag connected to this game. In all, we have three game decals that can be applied to your DS, one DS pouch, a DS Lite card cover, and even a set of dishes based on the three combat teams playable in the game.
In one final bit of cherry-blossom news, the characters of Sakura Taisen have been taken with the spirit of friendly international competition, and joined the Olympics! Join our heroines as they swim, run, and hammer-throw their way to the gold!
Welcome Back, Annie!
You seem to have a shortage of mail, so I will send you a letter. Hmm...I don't know what to write about though... Aha! The other day I was talking to one of the Japanese students on campus and we got talking about the clerks in convience stores. I pointed out that they are so energetic all the time in Japan. I had always thought of this as a good thing, but she pointed out that it's hard on the employee because they have to be really happy even if they're having a bad day. She said that the manager has the employees practice smiling and bowing before opening and after closing every day. I had never thought of it that way. Can you think of any other things in Japanese culture that are double-edged swords? To me it seems that, on the surface anyway, Japanese people are concerned more with others than themselves. Wouldn't that put a lot of stress on the individual because you can't please everyone? At the same time though, I think the U.S.A. is kind of the opposite. People (stereotypically anyway) care mostly about themselves at the expense of others. I wonder if a happy medium is possible?
I think I've probably rambled on long enough about that. I did think of another question while I was writing though. How do you think Japanese schools compare with ones in the U.S.? The impression I get is that the schools in Japan are more high pressure. Also, is there a lot of Special Education like there is in the U.S.? I went to a private Special Education school for kids with learning disabilities when I was in middle and high school. Is that sort of thing common in Japan?
Yikes! I really wrote a long letter. I hope you don't mind. Keep up the good work with the Japandemonium column!
Yay! A real letter! I won't have to hit up staffers or close relatives this week!
Anyhoo, back to the letter. Yes, the Japanese get a little overboard when it comes to politeness in any sort of social situation. The intensity with which they make service-industry employees practice their greetings and bows is just one example, though things do seem to differ depending on the size of the city. Store employees in big cities like Tokyo or Osaka, or at the big department stores, have always seemed more forcibly polite than the folks who work at stores in smaller towns, even within the same franchise.
One major annoyance for me is the Japanese insistence on certification over ability. No matter the subject, no matter the level, in order to teach anything in Japan, you need certification. That is, if you're native Japanese. Foreigners don't seem to need any legitimacy to teach English. Japanese standardized tests also emphasize certification over ability, which is how you get so many students who are highly proficient in English written grammar (even the nitty bits that no one uses), but absolutely fail when it comes to using the language, because they never really learned to understand how to use it.
As for Special Ed. schools, I'm not sure how Japan is set up in regards to those. For kids with severe mental or physical disabilities, they've done pretty well, probably to make up for all the years when those with problems were not treated well. I've also heard of schools for autistic children. For less-serious learning disabilities, or ADD for that matter, I'm not sure how well those problems are reported in Japan to begin with. The first response to learning problems in Japan seems to be "extra classes," no matter what the root of the problem may be. For that matter, a quick search on the internet brought up this article, which states: "It is natural for Japanese that there is no statistics on LD (learning disabilities) carried out by government because Japan doesn't have the term "LD" as legally regulated disability." This article dates back to 2000, though, so things may have changed in the past seven years.
Sorry all about last week -- I really am embarrassed about that column. I hope this one more than makes up for it, though. Everything's gone into Christmas mode over here, now, so if you have any festive questions about Japan, be sure to send them in!
Your man in Japan