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Whoda thunk? “Pac-man” actually MEANS something!

OK, I was really just a kid when the movie TRON came out, and when a little video game that could, Pac-man, was just about the most popular thing around. I used to go down to the local arcade with my dad and brother, shoveling quarters into the game cabinet or (if we went out for pizza) the game table that sat four and had fake wood paneling. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, all is forgiven. Suffice it to say that Pac-man was the shiz-nit, and I was horrendous at it but kept playing anyway. Pac-man was so much a part of my all-American upbringing that I never stopped the think that it might not even be American…my red, white and blue glasses were shattered when I came to Japan! Japanese use many sounds (called “giongo”) to express themselves in speech. One of these, which means, “to chomp,” is: PAKU-PAKU-PAKU! So that’s where the name “Pac-man” (PAKU-man, a chomping man) comes from. This was worse than discovering that Santa…oh, wait. Some of you may not know that yet. I’ll just shut up.


OK, I admit it: I once thought this logo the height of cool

I’m relieved to say that, as far as my far and wide search (go, Wikipedia!) can confirm, Atari was started by two American dudes, so we’re safe there. The problem: “Atari” is a Japanese word, too! And they don’t use in any sort of Space-invadery way, either…no, it just means “to hit (a target); to be on target.” So for example you might walk into a store and buy a lottery ticket, knowing full well that it’s a “win or lose” situation. In Japanese, they say, “atari(win)/hazure(lose).” So…damn ORDINARY! Whenever I’m scratching off a ticket at the doughnut shop, I’m thinking about killing aliens…it’s kind of annoying.


It took Voltron a long, long time to get down to business…

I wonder if something was lost in translation!

Remember that cartoon where there were these four lions, each fighting for good, who would combine into one big-ass robot and fight the monster at the end? No? Well, neither did my wife, who is Japanese. She said, “Voltron who?” but I would expect her to keep up with things of such import. So I consulted my go-to source (again with the Wiki), and discovered that “Voltron” was really just an American rehash of a Japanese cartoon called “Go Lion Force,” which to me makes more sense than the English title anyway. Apparently the American company who got the rights couldn’t translate the Japanese, so they just made up their own plots and dialogue and put it together again. I never noticed that it took the good guys an entire episode to combine–I wonder what the monster was doing in the meantime? “Could you guys hurry it up? I’ve got galaxies to destroy, ok?”


It would be cool to actually see a Japanese woman’s face on a big screen in Los Angeles…they should do it because they can

I’ve seen kanji (Chinese and Japanese characters) in lots of big American cities…too bad there’re no flying cars yet

One of the defining sci-fi movies of my generation was “Bladerunner,” the superb yet hard-to-digest film about androids and their right to life in a dystopian Los Angeles. It’s hard not to see the marks of 1980s US-Japan trade friction and paranoia in the Asianized production design and the smattering of Asian actors they used to convey the sense that the sun was definitely setting in the West. I would argue that a lot of films–even comedies like “Mr. Baseball”–have their roots in these ideas. As someone who loves Japan and considers it my second home, I’m not exactly proud of these moments–but they sometimes yield great pop-culture returns.


This was really after my time

In 1997, just two years before I first went to Japan, there was this computer-pet craze that, as I was in college, I missed completely. These pets were called “Tamagotchi,” and you could feed them and water them and such so they wouldn’t die–only they weren’t real. I heard that people actually felt bad when they “died,” and that there was controversy in some schools. Is any of this ringing a bell? In any case, the name “Tamagotchi” sounded funny to me, but I didn’t speak Japanese so I couldn’t begin to guess it’s origins. I thought the craze flamed out in the 90s, but another check of trusty Wiki confirmed that these pets are still around today with more features than ever. I can’t even keep a house plant. ‘Nuff said.

Mighty(?!) Morphin’ Power Rangers

I never got the “mighty” part

There’s a really cool article in the May 10, 2010 issue of The New Yorker magazine talking about how this business mogul named Haim Saban actually discovered the Power Rangers in Japan and localized them for the American market. When I read that I remember thinking, “That’s no surprise.” Yet talking to my brother and sister, who are quite a bit younger and were weened on those Mighty Morphin’ weirdos, I discovered that they had no clue about their inherent Japanese-ness! Now I suppose it’s cool for something to be Japanese, but at the time maybe it was safer to wash that all away and just play it American. Either way, admit it: These guys are pretty dorky.


C’mon, you know you cried when Optimus died…

No list like this would be complete without Transformers! I owe many, many hours of imaginative playtime to the fact that Hasbro apparently acquired this toyline from a Japanese company–rumor has it that the figures DIDN’T EVEN HAVE NAMES (GASP…) Anyway, that was less shocking than reading that Gobots, which I always thought were silly, were eventually absorbed into the Transformers universe and actually become a part of it! It was a business deal, I guess. But who am I kidding? I played with Gobots, too. Go fig.

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