Friday, January 28, 2005

Various ways to say "Menstruation" in Japanese

Hello all. Kind of tired today, as it's Friday and a rough one at that. But the weekend is near, so near...

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

It's been said that Japan is the only country that cares what its foreign population thinks, and I've definitely seen this to be true. Books about Japan written by foreigners who live here are often translated into Japanese and sell briskly, and the nightly broadcast of World Business Satellite wouldn't be complete without the nerdy gaijin analyst from Morgan Stanley giving his view of the recent movements in the market to round out the Japanese commentators. I've definitely seen that my own comments seem to carry a lot more weight than those of the average Japanese. Smoking is common in Japan, and it's not rare for restaurants to not even offer non-smoking sections, but two restaurants we frequent recently converted part of their space, almost definitely (according to my Japanese wife) because of polite comments I, being a foreigner, had made to the staff about cigarette smoke. Another time, I went to a restaurant and found the restroom to be a little on the smelly side. I carefully mentioned this to the manager, and when I went back a month later, I was surprised to find the restroom had been completely renovated (or as they say in Japan, "reformed"). Maybe my comment had nothing to do with this, but I have my doubts. Japanese people usually seem to hold the concept of gaman (patience, tolerance) to be a good one, stoically enduring a bad situation rather than trying to change it. Personally, I prefer to try to make the world a better place when I can...

Tokyo is the sprawling capital of Japan, home to 12 million people, a number which rises by several million during the day as people commute to their jobs from the surrounding areas. It's not a city at all, but one of Japan's 47 prefectures, although it's got a special status as a "metropolis," not unlike the District of Columbia in the U.S. Inside Tokyo there are 23 ku (wards), 26 shi (cities), 5 machi (towns) and 8 mura (villages), and my Tokyo friends tell me it's cooler to live in one of the wards since you get a phone number that starts with 03, not one of the inferior ones that start with 04. Some of the more famous areas of Tokyo are Shinjuku, a shopping and business area with many famous anime landmarks; Shibuya, a hip area for young people and home of Japan's most famous dog statue; Harajuku, where people dress like they do in FRUiTs magazine; stylish Ginza, home of Japan's only Apple Store; and Akihabara, where people come to buy electronics and eat in "cosplay cafes" (where the waitress dress in interesting costumes).

One of the interesting features of Japanese are the numbers of euphemisms they use for embarrassing things. Cute slang words are usually substituted for terms referring to various parts of the body, or else kanji characters are created to make a stand-in word, like combining the characters for "shadow" and "stem" to refer to that part of a man. There are so many ways to refer to woman's gekkei (menstruation) that I've actually never heard the normal term used even once. They include seiri (which simply means "biology"), okyakusama ga kiteiru ("I've got a guest staying with me"), hatabi ("flag day," in reference to the Japanese flag), and from a few years back, anne no hi or Anne's Day, something to do with the Diary of Anne Frank. A useful catch-all euphemism for just about anything is are (ah-rei), which literally means "that one over there" but can refer to any object you don't want to name openly. Another famous Japanese euphemism, as any anime fan knows, is the letter H, pronounced with a Japanese accent (ecchi), which refers to anything to do with sex.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Peter asks: what does America smell like?

Hello, all. It's mid-week and we're all doing fine. Although I got to work late today, I'm ahead of schedule on the update, which is okay by me. I've promised my son we'll paint his Gundam model today so I want to get out of here on time if I can...

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

What does America smell like? According to my nine-year-old son, it smells like Mr. Bubble, the classic bubble bath that I enjoyed when I was young and now buy for my kids. Whenever I take a trip back to the U.S. I come back loaded with good things from the States, like onion bagels, Cream of Wheat, Jello pudding and salsa, which are hard or impossible to find in Japan. Opening the bottle of Mr. Bubble for the first time really brings back the smell and imagery of life the USA, and we love taking bubble baths with it. (In Japan, having kids means never bathing alone.)

Part of the fun of learning Japanese is memorizing and using the onomatopoeic words found in the language. There are two kinds of sound-based words in Japanese, giseigo ("mimic-voice words") and gitaigo ("mimic-situation words"). Giseigo are words that imitate the sounds of animals -- wan wan for a dog, kokekokko for a rooster, and so on. Gitaigo, which describe abstract situations, are a little more interesting because there's nothing like them in English. Sometimes these words work as adverbs, modifying verbs: for example, kira kira describes the way a star shines in the sky, or the way a person's eyes glitter when they're overjoyed about something; an employee can work bishi bishi (fast and efficiently) or dara dara (slowly, lazily); and someone who is bilingual in a language speaks it pera pera (fluently). At other times, these descriptive words work as adjectives, expressing a state: pika pika is used to describe a brand-new toy, or as an alternate usage, a child who had just entered the first grade; an older person who has a lot of energy is pin pin (peen peen); and someone who is nervous or excited about something is doki doki.

The Japanese people are some of the longest-lived in the world, partly because Japan is a stable country with a good medical system. When you get sick in Japan, you either go to a large hospital (there are three or four near us), or to a smaller medical clinic. You must always bring your hoken-sho or insurance card, a little booklet that has all the information about your insurance printed inside. There are two systems of medical insurance in Japan: National Insurance, which is open to everyone including foreigners and self-employed, and Employee's Insurance, which is arranged through companies. In both systems, the patient bears 30% of the actual medical costs, with the insurance picking up the rest. Whenever I go to the doctor, I know he'll want to practice his English with me, since doctors usually learn English as part of their training; however, they're usually disappointed when I don't know what the difficult medical terms they use mean, since Japanese expect that every native English speaker knows every word ever created. Also, many of the English-sounding medical terms used in Japan are actually from German, which can cause more confusion. Japan has free health care for everyone under 5 and over the age of 60.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Kabuki, Takarazuka, and more

Hello all. Today is Monday here, which is always busy for us, since we have to do all of Sunday's work too. Dennis and Daisuke are off today too, so we have to check their mail.

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

I'm often asked by readers who are planning a trip to Japan what they should see while they're here. I've travelled around Japan quite extensively, usually hitchhiking or riding the "Youth 18" ticket, which lets you go anywhere you want in a 24 hour period for $20 as long as you don't mind riding the slow local trains. While the Kanto (Tokyo) area has a lot to see, the Kansai (Osaka) area is honestly a lot more interesting for visitors, with the beautiful cities of Kyoto and the older, quieter Nara nearby, the grandest castle in Japan (Himeji), the New York-esque bustle of Osaka, and some nice hot springs. If you do find yourself in the Tokyo area and want to escape the asphalt and concrete, try going to Nikko, a nice collection of temples about 75 km from Japan's capitol, where Ieyasu Tokugawa (the first Tokugawa Shogun) is interred. Near Nikko is another attraction we like to visit every few years: Tobu World Square, an amazing theme park where you can see see famous sights from all around the world in 1/25 scale. Here are some pictures of this great place for you.

One of the most famous images of Japan are the bright costumes and imagery of Kabuki. A popular form of stage entertainment that's four centuries old, Kabuki features men playing both male and female roles on stage, with interesting stories from Japan's past. Because the speech is very stylized and old, it's hard for fans to understand what's being said, so you can rent earphones that allow you to listen to commentary in modern Japanese or English. Since women are not allowed to participate in traditional Kabuki, they have the Takarazuka Revue, an all-female performance company established in 1914 as a way for women to express themselves on stage. Just as men play both male and female parts in Kabuki, women play both roles in Takarazuka, and they do it very well, too. While Kabuki is very traditional, Takarazuka is lively and colorful, often borrowing themes and stories from Western stage and musicals. Takarazuka actresses are very popular, especially the stylish otoko-yaku (male role performers).

"You've been in Japan too long when it takes you several seconds of deep thought to recall the first name of the President of the United States." It's true -- you'd be surprised what living in a foreign country can do to your ability to recall seldom-used information, or even remember some English vocabulary words. Try going years without ever hearing or uttering difficult words, like "gynecologist" or "irreplaceable" -- they can be quite difficult to dredge up from the depths of your memory, even if English is your native language. It's especially bad for gaijin who work as English teachers in Japan, because you can go for months without hearing any English except the simplified speech of your students, which invariably begins to affect your English in a negative way.