Thursday, January 13, 2005

Report from America: Sumo wrestling, annual snowfall and more

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

Hello from a very cold Japan. As usual, January on the Kanto Plain (the large plain around the Tokyo area) is bitingly cold, with cold winds that race down the mountains, called kara-kaze, the harsh "empty wind" that our prefecture is famous for. Except for the snow we got on Dec 31st, which melted soon after, we've had clear skies, courtesy of the Japan Alps, which act as a barrier to the precipitation, if not the wind -- the poor people who live on the Sea of Japan side of the country endure lots more snow than we do. When it's as cold as it is in Japan, there's nothing like going someplace warm, like San Diego, California, which is where I'm off to today. Although Southern California has been getting beat up by bad weather, I'm sure it's warmer than Japan.

Learning a new language means dealing with concepts that can't always be fit into your native language. One of the first examples having to fit a strange linguistic concept my brain came with the words kore, sore and are (koh-REI, soh-REI and ah-REI), which correspond to "this" (something near me), "that" (something new you, or a short distance away) and "that one over there" (something far from both of us) Having three location concepts where there are only two in English was a challenge, and my brain felt uncomfortable with this at first. What was the exact distance in inches where something went from being sore to are? We bugged our teacher with many questions like this. The above three words are demonstrative pronoun, e.g. "this one, that one." Another set -- kono, sono and ano -- are articles and require a noun after them, e.g. kono tamago "this egg," sono hon "that book [near you]" and ano onna no ko "that girl [over there]." If you've ever heard a Japanse person over-using "this one" instead of the word "this" it's because the concepts are different in Japanese.

Sunday was the start of the Hatsu Basho, the first tournament of the New Year. Sumo wrestling is the national sport of Japan, enjoying special sponsorship by the government. There are six tournaments during the year, four in Tokyo's Ryogoku area and one each in Nagoya and Kyushu. Sumo wrestlers from 54 training houses, called heya (meaning "room") but oddly translated as "stable" in English, compete against each other as they try to climb in rank as a wrestler. The six ranks in sumo are Juryo, Hirameki, Komusubi, Sekiwake, Ozeki and Yokozuna, with Yokozuna ("Grand Master") being the top rank. For a time, the sumo world was dominated by American wrestlers from Hawaii, like Konishiki, Akebono and my own favorite, Musashimaru, but one by one they retired as leg injuries and age slowly caught up with them, and they all retired. Currently the only top-ranked wrestler is Mongolian-born Asashoryu, who is one powerful wrestler. He often wins using the yorikiri technique, pushing his opponent straight out of the ring, but is also known for using tsuriotoshi, picking his opponent up and bodily dropping him inside the ring.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Coming-of-Age Day, Godzilla's end and more

Hello all. It's Monday but because today is Coming-of-Age Day (see below), the kids have school off, even though they should by all rights be in school by now. So my poor wife is spending another day taking care of them insted of getting her own work done. Ah, but that ends tommorrow...

Here are some pictures from Japan, with no theme to them at all. First is a picture of my wife's uncle, who fought in World War II on the battleship Ise. This is what he looked like when he was young. All his other pictures were lost when the ship was sunk in the harbor by the U.S. forces. Next, a New Year's Day shot of Darumas (decorative little Buddhist paper statues that are popular in Japan, especially in Gunma Prefecture where we live), about to be burned since they're from the previous year. Finally, a shot of the recent snow we had, very frosty and cold. As always, snow in the Kanto area (the flat plain around Tokyo) melts right away, so it's lucky we went out to play in the snow before it was gone.

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

Today is a special day in Japan: Seijin no Hi, or Coming-of-Age Day, when Japanese youths who have reached the age of twenty celebrate their entry into adulthood, since this is considered legal age in Japan. In the morning, they gather at their City Office, the girls wearing beautiful kimonos that their proud parents have bought for them and the boys in smart-looking suits, and endure long speeches by the mayor and other pillars of the community about their futures. In the evening, the new adults will generally smoke, drink and otherwise celebrate their new legal status as adults any way they can. Previously the holiday was held on January 15th, but a few years ago it was changed to the nearest Monday so that people could enjoy a three-day weekend (this is known as "Happy Monday" in Japan).

The Japanese film world is all abuzz these days. Hayao Miyazaki's latest film, Howl's Moving Castle, is playing in theatres now, and we took our kids to see it over the weekend (we had to wait a while for the crowds to die down, which is normal for a Miyazaki film release here). As usual, Japan's most famous animation director has created yet another fabulously original world which thoroughly delighted us. Based on a British novel by Diana Wynne Jones, it's the story of Sophie, an ordinary girl who is changed into a 90-year old woman by an evil witch's spell and seeks the help of the handsome wizard Howl and his magically moving castle. As usual, the soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi, the composer who has created the music for every Miyazaki film, is superb.

The other Japanese film getting a lot of attention recently has been Godzilla Final Wars, the "final" Godzilla movie by Toho has they retire the 50-year franchise, at least until they un-retire it at some point in the future. We caught a documentary on television about the making of this film, which features a somewhat Matrix-ified sci-fi story and lots of monsters for Godzilla to cut through. There were more than a few tears as actor Tsutomu Kitagawa got inside the massive Godzilla suit for the final cut of the film, and then it was a wrap. They showed the final shots of Godzilla from each of the films, intercut with comments by the staff who had worked on the movies over the years, including Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects cinematographer for the original film, who went on to create Ultra-Q and Ultraman for television. They then showed the demolishing of the historic Dai Pool, the giant pool of water at Toho Studios where the ocean sequences have been shot for the past half-century, which is being cleared to make way for new studio construction. It was very moving.