Monday, August 01, 2005

Lightning strikes, space-faring Japanese astronauts, and interesting tips on learning kanji

Lightning strikes! Twice before the J-List office has had the bad luck of being struck by lightning, frying our main air conditioning unit and causing us to spend a week or so sweltering in the heat and humidity of Japan's high summer. Well, it's happened again, and currently the J-List staff is trying to work in near-sauna conditions. Fortunately the lightning also knocked out the ice cream freezer at my parents' liquor shop, so we had an excuse to eat all the ice cream before it melted.

One thing I've learned about the Japanese: nothing makes them more pleased than when one of their own attains international recognition, and writers like Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata, directors like Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki, and athletes like Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki all occupy a special place in the hearts of their fans at home for this reason. So you can imagine that Japan is pretty proud of its latest hero, astronaut Soichi Noguchi, who went up in the U.S. Space Shuttle Discovery. Every time I turn on the television I see footage of Noguchi-san, making jokes while floating in zero-g or talking to his fans on the ground. As a former English teacher, I'm happy to see men like him become the new heroes to kids in Japan, and I hope it encourages more young Japanese to try harder to master English. Yesterday morning the crew of the shuttle was awakened with a broadcast of Japanese children singing the theme song to My Neighbor Totoro ("Let's Take a Walk") because it was the day of his first spacewalk outside the ship. Urayamashii! (OO-ra-ya-ma-SHE, which means "[I am] so envious [of him]!")

There's no doubt about it: the most complex part of learning Japanese is kanji, unless you're fortunate enough to already be fluent in Chinese. An educated Japanese person generally uses around 2000 kanji, compared with 3500-5000 for the same person in China. Because the Chinese writing system was basically grafted onto the existing Japanese language in the 5th century, there are fundamentally two ways to read any character, the on (rhymes with bone) or Chinese reading, and the kun (rhymes with spoon) or Japanese reading, the latter being an existing Japanese word that's been assigned to a kanji based on the character's meaning. As a general rule, you use the Chinese reading for compound words made up of two kanji (for example, the word for hibernation, toumin, written with the characters for winter + sleep), and there are quite a few Chinese and Korean words that are the same in Japanese for this reason. The Japanese reading is usually used for kanji words that appear by themselves (e.g. the character for winter written all by itself, fuyu), or in special cases like names of people or places. It's hard to believe, but it's easier to memorize Japanese vocabulary words through kanji than, say, learning from a book which prints Japanese in romaji (the Roman alphabet) For example, the kanji for "most" can be combined with a variety of other kanji to describe ideas like tallest, shortest, etc. Examples above are, from left, saikou (most + high = highest, also meaning the best), saitei (most + bottom = the lowest, meaning a real jerk when applied to a person), saisho (most + begin = the first), saigo (most + after = the last), and saishin (most + new = the newest). The rightmost example is the above mentioned kanji for hibernation. Memorizing these words in kanji only takes two "bytes" of your brain's memory once you've gotten used to the characters themselves, but memorizing the words in the Roman alphabet would be harder since they're just a jumble of letters.

J-List loves DVDs, and we sell hundreds of unique DVDs from Japan. While most of our titles are region free, so you can play them on any standard DVD player, Japanese anime, specialized "indies" and some other discs are published as region 2, meaning you need a special player to play them. We've got two great region-free DVD players from Lasonic, the karaoke-enabled DVD7880K and the amazing DVD7050, which plays DIVX movies burned onto DVD-R, DVD-RW, you name it. We've lowered our prices on these players to just $78 and $98, so why not pick one up today?