Friday, January 07, 2005

Yon-sama and variations on the word "Gambarimasu"

Hello all. Finishing a busy week, and am looking forward to taking the kids to the onsen, that is, hot springs.

Here are more pictures from Japan. Before Dec 31st you can have a "End of Year Party" (Bounen-kai, lit. "forget the past year party"), but after Jan 1st you have a New Year Party (Shinen-kai). I had a New Year party with a friend from college, and here are some pics.

The place is an "Izakaya" or a kind of traditional beer restaurant with good food. The food was great -- especially the fish, not an easy thing to say considering we're in the middle of Japan, far from the ocean. Below see my New Year's Beer, the first beer of 2005; a Grapefruit Sour, a drink with alcohol in it which you squeeze fresh grapefruit juice and pulp in to make a delicious drink; and a picture of a Beer Girl, the lovely girls who promote beer drinking in Japan.

Today's J-List post is below. You can also read it on the J-List website or the site.

The star of South Korean actor Bae Yong-joon, who appeared in the Korean drama Winter Sonata, just keeps on rising in Japan. The talented actor is on the way to becoming this year's "CM king" (the star appearing most in TV commercials), advertising everything from Lotte chocolate to mobile phones with cross-country calling features to small cars for women. The biggest group of fans of "Yon-sama" (as he's called these days) are middle-aged women in Japan, who apparently have lots of free time and excess income. When he arrived in Narita to promote his photobook, there were so many fans waiting for him that several people were hurt in the crush of bodies. The locations that appeared Winter Sonata are a popular tourist spot for Japanese women these days, with Korean Airlines offering special charter flights to handle the load of Japanese tourists. You can even make folded paper origami of Yon-sama with a book that's been released in Japan.

One word that comes up in anime a lot is gambaru (gahn-BAH-roo, alternately written ganbaru). A happy, cheerful word which means to do one's best, to work hard, to give one's all and so on, it seems to find its way into a variety of situations. Usually heard in its formal form gambarimasu (gahn-BAH-ri-mass, "[I will] do my best!"), or else as a request, e.g. gambatte or gambatte kudasai (gahn-BAH-tay koo-da-sai, "please try hard"), or alternatively in its "command" form, gambare (gahn-BAH-ray, "Do your best!"). Like Turkish, Finnish and some Native American languages, Japanese is an "agglutinating" language, which means it puts a lot of information (past tense, passive voice, polite language etc.) in the forms of the verb being used. The bad news is that students of Japanese have to memorize these forms (informal present, informal past tense, passive, and so on). The good news is that they're not hard to learn, and you never have to mess with confusing helping verbs like "he would have been able to come if he had received the call" in Japanese.

To successfully study a language, one thing you need to do beyond learning the grammar and vocabulary is to craft overall strategies for communication, even if it means using hand gestures or drawing pictures to show meaning. One strategy for communication that's probably used by all speakers of foreign languages is the non sequitur, a reply that can be used as a response to just about any question, whether you understood it or not. Back in my bachelor days, I went to a live orchestra performance and was surprised to hear that the organizers had "randomly" chosen three people from the audience to get up and conduct the musicians: a cute old woman, a little girl, and funny American, namely me. I got up on the conductors podium, trying to ignore the hundreds of people behind me, and lead the Maebashi Philharmonic Orchestra in the first few bars of Beethoven's 5th. When I was done, the MC asked me some questions about where I was from, how I liked my first time conducting an orchestra, and...something else, that I didn't happen to catch. Rather than embarrass myself in front of so many people by asking the MC to repeat herself, I gave her an answer that would fit just about anywhere in Japanese: so desu ne (literally "Yes, that's so"), which in Japanese usage can act as a neutral reply to just about any question.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The Three States of Eye Aversion in Gaijin

Here are today's pictures for all who care to see them. Today I'm showing you some of my recently cleaned-out Star Wars figure display. I have a few hundred figures, bought from 1997 through today, and they're really fun to collect. I tend to go for the well designed figures, and shun the crappier ones -- I'd gladly buy another Gamorean Guard or one of the recently released good Stormtroopers, for example, but I passed on the poorly designed re-issues of the original figures with 1977 Kenner packaging because the figures looked horrible.

Today's J-List post is below. You can also read it on the J-List website or the site.

One could write a book studying the psyche of gaijin living in Japan -- for example, the "three states of eye aversion" they seem to go through when it comes to looking at other foreigners around them. There are many gaijin from countries like America, England, and Brazil who appear regularly on Japanese TV speaking fluent Japanese and giving an "outsider's view" on things -- it's common for one of the commentators on a news show to be a foreigner, for example. Foreigners living in Japan often hate these TV personalities, if for no other reason than because their Japanese is better than ours. Among the foreign-born "talents" you can see on TV here are Wikki-san, a Sri Lankan man who passed the entrance exam for the famous Tokyo University even though he's a foreigner and who's become a spokesman for tsunami disaster aid in the past few weeks; Patrick Harlan, who speaks his annoying macho English on NHK's hit English study show "Eigo de shabera-night"; and the eternal Dave Spector, former ABC television producer who become the most famous American in Japan, appearing on hundreds of variety shows (he dyes his black hair blonde because it makes him look more "foreign" on television).

During my time in Japan, I've had certain "gaijin shocks," real out-of-body experiences that you could only have in this country. American Football is followed by some Japanese fans, and I managed to find a game being broadcast late at night -- half an hour into the action, I realized I'd been listening to the sportcasters give the play-by-play commentary in Japanese without even noticing it. There have been other times when I found myself quite surprised by something, such as when I had that first dream in Japanese, or realizing I understood what the opening words to the Mr. Roboto song meant ("Thank you, Mr. Roboto, until we meet again...Thank you, Mr. Roboto, I want to know your secret"). Once, while eating pancakes, I couldn't find a fork so I made do with chopsticks, aware of how silly I'd look to friends back home. Finally being able to read the "sake" (sah-KAY, rice wine) character on Dr. Sane's "spring water" in Yamato/Star Blazers was another enlightening experience for me. Ah, it's fun to live in Japan!

Breakfast cereal is one of the major staple foods in the U.S., and it's slowly growing in popularity here in Japan, too. It was slow going, though -- Japanese consumers preferred Japanese food, like fish, miso soup and natto (fermented soybeans) to what looked to them like "bird seed." Now, several brands of cereal compete for share the Japanese cereal market, lead by Kellogg's, who markets Corn Flake, Corn Frosty, Choko-wa (chocolate loops), Genmai Flakes, and recently, Fruits Loops (the "fruits" is a fluke of Japanese phonetics). Unfortunately, Kellogg's products are very expensive here -- about $4 for a box that contains only 2-3 American-sized bowls of cereal, so I usually choose Ciscorn or Calbee's cereal products when I go shopping. Another option for gaijin living in Japan is to order supermarket cases of American cereal from the Foreign Buyers' Club in Kobe ( -- it's a convenient way to buy food from back home, if you don't mind having 12 boxes of Cheerios sitting around for a year.

Monday, January 03, 2005

New Years in Japan

Hello all. Had a nice weekend. A friend from Tokyo came up and we had a New Year's Party (Shinenkai, as opposed to a Forget-the-Past-Year Party, which you have in December). I've posted the new update and some pictures of what we did on New Year's, so you can learn about Shintoism in Japan.

Today's J-List post is below. You can also read it on the J-List website or the site.

Hello and akemashite omedeto from all of us at J-List! We had a quiet, traditional New Year's here in Japan, getting up and watching the big Oshogatsu Marathon on TV -- by an odd coincidence, a huge nationally televised marathon is held in our city on January 1st, with runners racing past streets near our house while all of Japan watches. In the afternoon we went to the Shinto shrine to pray for happiness and health this year, then did what we do every year, go to my wife's uncle's house to sit around and eat delicious food and play old Japanese card games. My wife's uncle, who is 82, fought on the battleship Ise and has a bullet mark across his face from an American gun, and I like my children to talk with him so they can know what happened in the past between Japan and America. Now it's time for every store to have its hatsu-ichi, the first sale of the New Year, and the streets are clogged with shoppers looking for bargains.

Japan is a small country, with about half the population of the U.S. squeezed into four islands that are about 1/25 the land mass of America. This requires the Japanese to utilize their space more efficiently, and they're very good at coming up with ways of making do with less land. In cities like Tokyo, there often isn't enough space to put a vending machine along the side of the road, so they've developed ultra-thin vending machines that are up to 1/3 as deep as normal ones. Gas stations locate their pumps on the roof, with hoses that can be pulled down to refuel cars, so no space is lost. Japanese futons are also very space-efficient, since they can be folded up and put in the closet during the day. We had so much snow on Friday that I took off work early to play with the kids, and we went to a place that was perfect for our toboggans: a park that had been built around several of the ancient burial mounds (kofun) that dot Japan, in another example of wise use of space. The burial mounds were perfect for sliding down in the snow.

Japanese generally write their names using kanji, Chinese characters, with the family name always written before the given name, e.g. Yamada Hanako instead of Hanako Yamada. When a baby is born, the parents file the paperwork at their local city office, and the child is added to that family's official register. Parents are required to choose characters from a list of "name kanji" that the government has approved, and every few years there are problems because some parents want to use an out-of-date character that's not on the list. Because names in kanji have some meaning that's not necessarily present in Western names, it's often interesting for foreigners to find out what those meanings are. Many Japanese are made up of kanji for some of the simplest words -- ta (rice field, also read da), ishi (stone), naka (inside), yama (mountain), kawa (river), hashi (bridge), and so on. Again and again I find myself amazed at how often Japanese are unable to read some of the more difficult kanji, both names of people and of places. Because each character has at least two ways to read it (the Chinese and Japanese pronunciations), and because readings are often shoehorned into some kanji (for example, Ainu place names in northern Japan have had kanji assigned to them, which no one outside of the region can read), knowing how to read some characters can be a big challenge.