Buying a flat-panel TV in Japan

Last Nov. 2010 was a buying frenzy for TVs in Japan. Electrical appliance stores sure made a killing with so many customers every day until Nov. 30, 2010.

I was one of them, and in late Nov. 2010, I waited behind 30 people for about an hour to get hold of a salesman at my local Yodobashi Camera store, a large camera/electronics retailer in Japan. Even if you had already decided which model to buy and just wanted to fork over the cash to buy it, you had to wait.

The buying frenzy was caused by the Dec. 1, 2010 deadline imposed by the Japanese government when its Eco-point system would be dramatically revised. The Eco (i.e. Ecology) point system is a governmental reimbursement program for purchases of TVs, refrigerators, and air conditioners. Buy any of these products and you will receive Eco-points which can be exchanged for gift certificates or other cash-equivalent things. One Eco-point is worth 1 yen.

How many Eco-points you receive depends on the model and energy efficiency (rated from 1 to 5 stars) of the product. The program is to encourage people to buy more energy-efficient and environment-friendly appliances and switch to digital TVs in preparation for Japan’s switchover to all-digital TV broadcasting in July 2011.

I bought an air conditioner in summer 2010 for around 100,000 yen and received 6,000 Eco-points. In late Nov. 2010, I bought a 32-inch LED TV for 83,000 yen (before discounts) and received 12,000 Eco-points. If I bought the same TV after Nov. 30, 2010, I would receive only 6,000 Eco-points. From Dec. 1, 2010, the number of Eco-points would be halved. And that caused Japan’s TV buying frenzy in Nov. 2010. I also received 3,000 Eco-points to reimburse the recycling fee I had to pay to dispose of my old TV when the new TV arrived. (The man who delivered my new TV also took away my old TV.)

To convert your Eco-points into a gift certificate accepted at most stores in Japan, you have to send to the Japanese government an application form and include the receipt and a copy of the product warranty. Your dealer can help you with that. Then a few months later, you will receive a postcard which you take to your dealer to exchange it for gift certificates (usually 1000 yen denominations).

I waited till the last minute to buy a new TV because I could not decide on which brand/model to buy. I also thought that I should hold out for newer and better models. I was actually planning to buy a TV in June 2011, but the announcement of the Eco-points being halved after Dec. 1, 2010 spurred me and many others here to buy a new TV now.

So after you decide to buy a new TV, you have to decide which one to buy. Japan has so many famous brands and none of them have a compelling reason for you to go with that one instead of another. The Big Four TV brands in Japan are Sharp, Sony, Panasonic, and Toshiba. There are other makers like Mitsubishi and Hitachi, but they occupy way less shelf space in stores. Unlike in the US, Samsung TVs are nowhere to be found in Japan.

Sharp is especially popular due to their fine reputation for flat-panel displays. Their Aquos brand is associated with high-quality displays in both TVs and cell phones. The problem was, I would have had to wait 2 or 3 months for the Sharp TV to arrive. Order in Nov. and arrives in Feb. I couldn’t wait that long so I went with another brand.

You can look at a Sharp TV and compare it to a comparable model of another brand, but can hardly tell the difference. I looked at all the TVs on display and could not say which looked better. This led me to conclude that on a practical level, the brand didn’t really matter much unless you’re a fan of a particular brand.

So I have no advice as far as the brand is concerned. But I noticed that certain brands and models are discounted more than others. My particular TV had a 20% discount which was more than the usual 13% or 15% discount. Certain models also have a better value for the price, and my TV was one of them. Before I bought my TV, I bought a Japanese magazine which reviewed all the TVs on the market. That really helped me to compare features and prices. The magazine also identified the TVs offering the best value for the price. Another way to choose a brand is to consider other products you might want to buy, such as a camcorder or DVR/Blu-ray recorder. Sticking with the same brand for all your video equipment usually makes things easier.

Also, LED TVs seem to be coming to fore, instead of non-LED TVs. The newest LCD TVs all seem to be LED models. Customers know that LED consumes less energy, provide a brighter picture, and have a thinner profile. And from what I’ve seen, the price difference between LED and non-LED models is not much. Get an LED TV.

One of the first things you have to decide is the screen size. Basically, the bigger the better. Most TV reviewers say that the minimum should be 32 inches for a living room. Having a 32-in. TV myself, I tend to agree. Although I think a 40-in. screen would make TV viewing a lot more pleasant if you have the room and cash to get one. If you have a six-mat room, a 32-in. TV would fit the bill, but you might still wish for a bigger TV. Interesting how the TV looks smaller in your house than when you saw it in the store.

Next, you have to decide on the features. I noticed the following types of feature sets in the latest TVs:

1. TV with no recording function.
2. TV with recording function using a built-in hard disk only.
3. TV with recording function using a built-in Blu-ray drive only.
4. TV with recording function using an external hard drive(s).
5. TV with recording function using a built-in hard disk and Blu-ray drive.

Before you decide on the feature set, you have to think about whether you will also buy a DVR/BD-R deck which can cost as much as or more than your TV. If you already have a DVR or plan to buy one, then get a TV with no recording function. Those models are really cheap and a good deal. You might think that it might be cheaper to buy a TV with a built-in HDD and BD-R than to buy a DVR/BD-R deck separately. Not really. TV makers want you to buy a separate DVR/BD-R deck so TVs with a built-in HDD and Blu-ray recorder will cost about the same as a basic TV plus a separate HDD/BD-R deck.

If you don’t have or don’t plan to get a separate DVR/BD-R deck, then you would want a TV with a recording function. One thing you have to understand about TVs recording to a built-in or external hard drive is that, the recorded programs can only be played back on that TV. You cannot connect the external HDD to another TV (even if it’s the same model) and playback the recorded programs. And if you want to copy a recorded program to a disk (DVD or Blu-ray), you will have to connect a separate DVR/BD-R deck (or your personal computer) to the TV’s outputs and playback the recorded program to record to a disk.

The TV’s external HDD is also incompatible with personal computers. If you connect the TV’s HDD to a computer, you will have to reformat it and wipe out the contents before it will be compatible with your computer. And vice versa, your computer’s HDD will have to be formatted especially for the TV to make it compatible with the TV. Whatever data you have on the HDD will be lost. I notice that hard drives sold in stores have labels like “Compatible with Toshiba Regza TVs,” implying that only certain HDDs are compatible with TVs. Well, my old HDD that I used with my Mac is perfectly compatible with my TV.

If your TV only has a Blu-ray recorder, you will need to insert a Blu-ray disk each time you want to record something. A standard Blu-ray disk holds 25 GB of data which is not much if you plan to record a lot of programs while on vacation. Built-in HDDs are usually at least 250 GB. An external HDD can be a lot larger. So if you want a TV with recording function, I would recommend recording to an external HDD unless you really want Blu-ray.

The problem with Blu-ray is that it’s still not widespread. I don’t really have friends/relatives who have a Blu-ray recorder or player. DVDs are still much more common here in Japan. Blu-ray is not gonna take off until it’s introduced in personal computers (i.e. Mac). They also have to make BD-R decks cheaper, on par with VHS tape decks. It’s still too expensive even though the price of a standard 25GB Blu-ray disk is now less than 200 yen. It’s a shame because Blu-ray does have definite advantages over DVDs which I find to be too small for high-definition videos. The slow spread of Blu-ray is a far cry from the quick adoption of CDs and DVDs by consumers.

As I shopped for a TV in Tokyo, I was amused by the weird product names that they all use. Like Bravia (a mistake for bravado?), Viera (related to Spanish name Vierra?), Regza (reggae music?), and Aquos. Aquos is Sharp’s well-known brand because it is also used in Sharp’s cell phone screens. It sounds nice, but I always wondered why they made it sound so similar to “aqua.” There’s no water involved. Not only that, the actual product designations like TH-L32R2 , LC-32DX3, LC-32DR3, etc., are just impossible to remember.

What happened to names like Sony Trinitron? (The name of my old TV.) That was a good-sounding name, easy to remember, and it was related to the actual technology behind it. Wish they could create names like that again. But then, the Japanese are notorious for creating and using strange or mistaken or laughable English.

LED lightbulbs cost 2200 yen to 4900 yen each.

Another thing about Eco-points I should mention is that at Yodobashi Camera, you can double the value of your Eco-points if you use them to buy LED lightbulbs or rechargeable batteries. That’s what I did. I used 9,000 Eco-points, normally worth 9,000 yen, to buy 18,000 yen worth of LED lightbulbs. But you have to do this transaction before you send in your Eco-point application to the government. Go to Yodobashi with the Eco-point application form, receipt, and warranty and tell them that you want to use some (or all) your Eco-points to buy LED lightbulbs or rechargeable batteries. They will process your Eco-points and you can take home the LED lightbulbs on the spot. If you still have any Eco-points remaining, you can rewrite your application to reflect the lower number of Eco-points and send it in. Your dealer can help you with this.

My new TV arrived about a month after I ordered it in Nov. 2010. A one-month wait was tolerable, and it was just in time for me to record a TV series starting in early Jan. 2011. If you’ve never bought a flat-panel TV before, you might be surprised when you first turn it on. There’s no picture. You instead see on-screen instructions to first set up your TV. It’s simple enough, but you will have to be able to read Japanese. You have to select the region where you will use the TV, enter even your postal zip code, etc. After the setup is done and the TV picture appears, you feel relieved and happy that you’re finally entering the digital age.

I’m impressed by the picture quality compared to my old standard-definition TV, but skin tones still look a little too artificial/electronic and maybe too pink at times. But the human eye is quite forgiving and I know that I won’t mind it so much. I like the on-screen TV schedule display which I can use to program the TV to record programs. (Of course, you have to read Japanese to read the TV schedule.) I also love the picture quality of the recorded programs. They look the same as the actual program. Unlike videotapes which always degraded the picture quality. The TV’s sound quality was quite chintzy out of the box, but fortunately the bass/treble could be adjusted and it now sounds good enough without me having to buy external speakers. Another great thing is that the slim TV frees up a lot of space in front of it, previously occupied by the big CRT. Well, after putting it off for so long, I’m glad that my TV hunt is finally over.

Losing your language

On April 20, 2006, a long-lost former Japanese army soldier who was stationed on Russia’s Sakhalin island when World War II ended, finally visited his native Iwate Prefecture and was reunited with his kin for the first time since 63 years ago when he went to war in 1943.

It had been such a long time that he was pronounced officially dead in 2000 and his name was engraved on the family gravestone. For decades, his family in Japan never received any word of his whereabouts until now. His name is Ishinosuke Uwano, now 83 years old and still healthy looking. His younger brother and sisters are still alive and it was certainly a tearful and happy reunion.

Turns out that he had married a Ukrainian and is now living in Ukraine where his wife is from. He has three children and his son accompanied him to Japan.

I just cannot imagine something like this to happen in my family. But the Japanese government estimates that there are still some 400 former Japanese soldiers living in the former Soviet Union. They’ve identified only about 40 of them. It must be really agonizing for the families in Japan to still have a missing brother or relative and not knowing whether he is still alive or not.

What actually surprised me more was Mr. Uwano’s inability to speak Japanese. At the press conference, he could only speak Russian and spoke through an interpreter. He had lost his native language of Japanese. I’m sure his family doesn’t care what language he speaks, as long as they can erase his name from the tombstone. But it must be totally weird to hear him speak a foreign language instead of Japanese.

Mr. Uwano’s case proves something which I have always thought to be impossible: Losing your native language. To be sure, language is one of those “use it or lose it” things. This is especially true in the case of a foreign-language or second language.

While living in Japan all these years, I’m also well aware that we can sometimes forget certain words or phrases in our native language, especially when there are things which we can express better in Japanese.

But I have never believed that you can actually forget your entire native language even after living in a foreign country for many years. The language you learn and grow up with during the first 20 years of your life supposed to remain with you for life. It’s almost like a hereditary trait, something that you cannot change for life. Or so I thought.

I’ve always regarded one’s native language as an inherent and inseparable part of one’s identity. Until now, I have never heard of anyone to have totally lost his or her native language after living in a foreign country. Uwano’s case reminded us of former Japanese soldier Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi who was discovered still hiding on Guam in 1972 thinking the war was not yet over. And also Lt. Hiroo Onoda who was found in the jungle of the Philippines in 1974. Both had lived in the jungles for almost 30 years. But they came back to Japan and still spoke Japanese. They did have war comrades for a time to whom they could speak Japanese. But after their comrades were caught or killed, they lived alone for a good number of years. Still, they never forgot their native language.

Another case is the Japanese abductees in North Korea who returned to Japan in 2002 for the first time after living in North Korea for well over 20 years. One of them, Mrs. Hitomi Soga married to a former American soldier, had trouble speaking Japanese at first. But she soon got back into the groove and her Japanese language ability returned naturally. I knew this would happen since you simply don’t lose your native language. Or so I thought.

Now Mr. Uwano’s case is apparently much more extreme. He’s been away for over 60 years. Probably has had no contact with other Japanese during the past decades.  He probably decided to shed his native identity in order to adapt to his adopted country. He seems to have adapted well to his adopted country. His Russian sounds perfect. I guess with a Ukrainian wife and children, that would do it. After he spends 10 days in Japan (that’s how long he’ll stay here), I’d like to see another press conference and listen if he has recalled any of his native language.

For me, losing my native or second language ability would be traumatic and devastating. I have become so used to being able to read about and access two different worlds and cultures through English and Japanese that losing either would mean that half my world would be gone.

I’m also happy to note that being from Hawaii, where they speak a dialect called pidgin, I have never ever lost my pidgin English. I do have friends from Hawaii in Japan. My sisters (also born in Hawaii) in Japan can also speak/understand pidgin. They all help me exercise my beloved native language. And I’m always happy to hear from a non-Hawaiian foreign friend in Japan or elsewhere telling me that they recently saw a TV program about Hawaii and thought all those people spoke just like me. Of course, I speak standard English to my non-Hawaiian, non-Japanese friends, but they are still able to distinguish my accent as being different from a Californian or New Yorker.

Well, if you live in a foreign country and don’t want to lose your native language, make friends having the same native language as you. Of course, I have no problems with this and the vast majority for foreigners living in Japan do not have this problem either.

Writing about Japan

If you want to write about Japan to any degree beyond the superficial, you’ll have to be able to read Japanese. No if’s, and’s, or but’s. The amount of information about Japan available in Japanese is a mountain compared to an ant hill in other languages.

Foreign correspondents working in Japan often use English sources of information. Or they use a translator. Such people will never be able to get the true or whole story. If you are a foreign newspaper or magazine who need a correspondent in Japan, make sure he/she can read Japanese. And if you are a foreign newspaper or magazine who has a correspondent in Japan who cannot read Japanese, be aware that you are missing out on a lot of information.

I remember Mike Wallace of the 60 Minutes TV program once came to Tokyo to exclaim that a melon costs $100. He did not point out (or did not know) that melons we normally buy cost much less, and that premium-grade fruits like $100 melons are not the norm. It’s like going to Italy and seeing the price of a Lamborghini and reporting that cars in Italy cost $300,000.

A person who cannot read Japanese and has not lived in Japan for at least five years is really not qualified to write/report about Japan. I’m reminded of this each time I update my Web site with new pictures and articles about Japan.

There’s just no way I could build this site I’m building without being able to read Japanese. Most of the information I feed to my site is based on Japanese sources. It might be a pamphlet distributed at a festival explaining about all the people appearing in the parade, a brochure given by a temple, a book about local Japanese history, an explanatory sign at a shrine, or an official Web site explaining the significance of a lakeside monument. All in Japanese, and hardly found in English. If there’s information in English, it is most often very superficial or a poor translation.

I’m a pack rat and collect a lot of paper things. I keep all the tickets and brochures I receive or obtain whenever and wherever I travel in the world. I also go to the local tourist offices of all the prefectures, cities, and towns I visit in Japan to pick up pamphlets. It’s usually the first thing I do before exploring that place. Tokyo also has prefectural tourist offices clustered in one building (in Yurakucho) where you can pick up brochures and see samples of local souvenirs and delicacies from all over Japan.

I have all my Japan travel pamphlets organized in folders on a large bookshelf. I have one folder for each prefecture (47 of them) and separate folders for the larger cities and favorite subjects such as sumo and geisha. Whenever I need to write a photo caption or article about Japan, I can quickly find the respective brochure in my files. Of course, I also check appropriate Web sites as well. But all the information is in Japanese. Fortunately, I can read Japanese. (I will never get tired of bragging about my ability to read Japanese.)

I also have a bookshelf of maps of all the prefectures and major cities. As well as books about specific regions and places in Japan. Again all in Japanese. The information presented here at PHOTOGUIDE.JP is backed up by the best sources of information you can find in Japan.

I read in Japanese and then I write in native English. I don’t have a Japanese wife or employee who reads and translates the Japanese text for me. I read the information directly. If I don’t understand something, I try to look it up directly. This is how it works at PHOTOGUIDE.JP. It is really a project for me to learn more about Japan. And it gives me great pleasure to share what I’ve learned with others, and to offer information and pictures found nowhere else online. In effect, to go beyond the superficial level.

Of course I do have sources in English about Japan, but they are very secondary. There was one book called “Japan: The New Official Guide” edited by the Japan National Tourist Organization. It’s in English and during my first years in Japan when I was still allergic to Japanese newspapers, this book was my travel bible. It’s quite comprehensive, but when I look at it now, it really looks like a bare-bones guide compared to the wealth of information available in Japanese. But certainly the book (not revised since 1991) can satisfy the passing tourist who just needs to know the basics during a short whirlwind trip.

My big dilemma now is sifting through all my Japanese information and picking out the most essential and most interesting information to be presented in English, focusing on information not widely available in English. You know, there are still many interesting things and places in Japan left undiscovered by all the English guide books and Web sites out there. I want to concentrate on those off-the-beaten-path places. I really wish I could translate everything into English. But this is simply impossible. I will try to go as far as I can for as long as I can. Wish me luck.

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