Friday, February 11, 2005

Desserts in Japan: from Coffee Jelly to Purin and beyond

Hello all. If it isn't one thing, it's something else. Today the update is working fine, but the mail server is down with a dead hard drive. I've got our tech in Edmonton, Canada working on it now. Heh, I love the Internet -- I live in Japan, work with my staff in San Diego, have a programmer in Las Vegas and a web designer in Sweden.

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

Desserts in Japan can be a little different from what you might expect. One popular dish in Japan is coffee jelly, coffee flavored gelatin that's really good with cream poured over it -- Starbucks sells a Coffee Jelly Frappe in the summer which is delicious. Another popular dessert in Japan is purin, basically egg custard flan with caramel sauce on top, popular in Spain and Mexico. If you've ever seen that yellow/brown dog character from Sanrio named Purin and wondered what that was, he represents flan and his brown hat is the caramel sauce. Nata de Coco is a well-known dessert in the Philippines with firm, chewy squares made from coconuts, and it's popular in Japan, really good in yogurt. Cake is big here too, and most cake shops are small, highly professional outfits who bake fabulous delicacies and sell them for $5 a piece (you almost never buy a whole cake in Japan, it'd be too expensive). Finally, there are many kinds of ice cream in Japan, from matcha (green tea) and azuki (sweet Japanese beans) to variations on Italian gellato and "soft cream" (what soft-serve ice cream is called here). We even have a 31 Flavors in our small city.

It's well known that the Japanese can be quite group oriented, with more awareness of in-group (uchi) and out-group (soto). A lot of this seems to come about through the Japanese education system, which exists not only to teach information to students, but also to create Japanese citizens who can all identify with society on the same level, more or less. In my schools in California, each student had a different schedule, with math this period, English the next, and P.E. after that, so we never had all the same kids in our classes with us. But in Japan, classes are together all day long over the course of the school year, with the teacher coming and going each period, which creates a strong sense of being a part of the class as a group, although it has downsides too. Clubs are another machine for creating a sense of being in a group, and in junior high school, students are usually required to join one of the clubs at the school, even if they don't want to, as a chracter-building excercise.

Today is a holiday in Japan, Kenkoku no Hi or National Founding Day, one of many holidays that come and go without anyone realizing here what the heck they were all about. Established in the Meiji Era as the coronation day of the first Emperor of Japan, Jimmu, the day used to fall on the first day of the year according to the Lunar calendar. Commemorating the start of Japan's Imperial line was frowned upon after World War II as the wrong kind of patriotism, but the holiday was reestablished in 1966.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Manga Cafes in Japan, and the Green Tea Belt

Oopsie -- once again I see I've forgotten to post my after doing the J-List update. Sorry!

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

One type of business that's sprung up over the past decade is the manga kissa, or manga cafe, a place where you can get coffee and kill a few hours leisurely reading through all the comics on the shelves, for a per-hour fee. Manga cafes have adopted to the age of the net, offering the functionality of an Internet Cafe too, with computers and wireless LAN. I went to an interesting place the other day that offered just about all the leisure you could want: each customer was assigned a private cubicle with a comfortable chair, which contained a computer with broadband connection and Playstation in addition to a desk. There were manga to browse, DVDs to watch, and online games to play, all within my personal leisure space. It felt like something out of a William Gibson novel, come to life.

The U.S. is divided up into various sections, which reflect the industries that are strongest in those areas. Idaho is potato country, and the midwest is the grain belt that feeds most of the nation, for example. This exists in Japan, too. First of all, the northernmost island of Hokkaido (ho-KAI-doh) is the breadbasket of Japan, providing corn, potatoes, and delicious dairy products, many of which use the shape of the island to sell themselves. Niigata is famous for rice, and companies advertise the fact that they use rice from the prefecture to get customers to buy. Shizuoka Prefecture, next to Mt. Fuji, is the Green Tea capital of Japan, but there are also factories and industry there. If there's a Bible Belt in Japan, it'd have to be the westernmost island of Kyushu, which was the first to be Christianized back in the 16th century, and is home to some of the oldest churches in the country. And I've always though that the Tohoku region of Japan, the prefectures north of Tokyo on the main island of Honshu, was sort of parallel to the American South -- it's strongly identified with enka, the "country music" of Japan.

Whenever you learn a language, one of the first things you generally learn are the "bad" words -- that's just plain human nature. Most students of Japanese are surprised to find that there are almost no really bad words in the language, if you define bad as in, words that kids aren't allowed to use. Kuso (the "s" word) is used regularly on children's anime in Japan, and most kids use it normally while playing with nary a word from their parents. Baka (stupid) is the catch-all insult, used in almost any situation (Japanese from the Kansai region say aho instead). Variations on the above two words include baka-jijii (stupid old man) and kuso-babaa (sh--ty old woman). The various applications of the "f" word don't translate into Japanese at all -- the word doesn't exist in Japanese, although virtually all Japanese know the English word, along with the English word "sekkusu." The only really "bad" word in Japanese is manko (referring to a woman's reproductive organ) -- embarrassingly close to "mango," not unlike the word election for Japanese speakers of English. This word is so bad, it's usually written with a circle or "X" or a circle in place of the middle letter. As always, exercise caution when using these words so that you don't offend any Japanese around you. For more information on Japanese terms, see the glossary (link on the left side of the J-List site).

At J-List, we love to promote interest in Japan with everything we do, including the study of the language. We have a new "reserve subscription" magazine for those who want to try their hand at reading Japanese, as well as anyone who wants to read news and topics on life in Japan: Hiragana Times. As with all our revolving magazine subscriptions, we'll send each issue to you automatically until you tell us to stop. We carry more than 30 popular anime, manga, fashion, toy and other magazines.

Monday, February 07, 2005

About the Japanese word "about," and an update on robots in Japan

Hello all. I remembered to do the blog posting this time!

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

Japan invests heavily in robotics, and it's common to see TV shows about robots, often with competitions or "robot battles" with machines created by university engineering students to promote the growth of the technology. Last night we had a special treat: a fight to the death between the original Gundam mecha and Tetsujin 28, aka Gigantor, both highly advanced remote-control robots with the ability to balance themselves and stand up if they fall over. Despite an amazing rolling attack by Tetsujin 28, the Gundam, which had the weight advantage, managed to push his opponent off the table and win the match.

The Japanese have adopted the English word "about" as an adjective meaning vague or inexact, e.g. kare wa abauto na hito desu ("he is a very vague person"). The term applies perfectly to the Japanese language itself, which can have a lot of nuances, unspoken words, and omitted meanings. Subjects are regularly left off of sentences, since the meanings are usually clear to both parties, and other parts can be omitted as well. When my wife comes into my office at 12:30 and says "Iku?" (lit. "Go?"), I know she means "Shall we go to lunch now?" Some of the vagueness of Japanese comes from the way that the kanji writing system has been grafted onto the language. As a general rule, kanji have two pronunciations, the Japanese one and one based on Chinese. The words hara-kiri and seppuku (both terms for ritual disembowelment practiced in Japan) are actually written with the same kanji, although switched around; the former is the Japanese reading and the latter is the Chinese one, but the meaning is exactly the same. Names can be very vague, too, with different ways to read them, just as there are alternate spellings for names in the West. To this day, I'm not sure if a family we've known for years is named Kimishima or Kimijima, since both are valid ways to read their kanji. My Japanese wife admits she's not sure which it is, either.

After four years, the residents of Miyakejima, an island 150 km from Japan that's little more than a massive volcano rising out of the sea, have been allowed to return to their homes. The entire population was forced to evacuate when Mount Oyama erupted in 2000, but are being returned now, despite sulfur gas still erupting from the mountain. Much of the island has been damaged by falling ash and mud, but the residents are hopeful they can rebuild and eventually reclaim their status as a popular tourist spot for the Tokyo area.

We've been asked by the chairman of the Lions Youth Exchange to mention their excellent Youth Exchange Program, which sends students aged 17-21 on international exchange programs to many countries, including to Japan. They're especially interested in finding young people who want to visit Japan because they usually have trouble filling all the slots for the Japan program. If you or someone you know is interested in applying for the Youth Exchange Program, contact the Lions Club in your area and ask for details and an application. The deadline for applications is March 31st.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Everything you wanted to know about shoes and the Japanese

Hello all. Apologies on posting this late -- I plum forgot to post the blog on Friday when I finished the J-List update, because I was in a hurry to take my kids to the onsen (Japanese hot springs) on Friday before it got too late. Boy is my face red!

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

When you learn a language, you also learn a lot about how your own brain works, especially how vocabulary words and concepts are accepted by the mind. I'm sure that most people have trouble memorizing Japanese names, as they can have a lot of letters and look strange to you if you're not used to them. As I studied Japanese I found that this got easier partially because I was able to "store" the names in my mind first as Japanese syllables, and later as kanji. If you learn a name like Matsushima, it looks like a jumble of letters, and this is very hard for the brain to fit into memory. All words in Japanese are made up of syllables, and if you're familiar with kana writing systems this name goes from ten symbols to just four: MA TSU SHI MA. Once you can read the actual kanji ("pine tree" and "island"), it's down to two, which is much easier for the brain to file away. So all you need to do to memorize a Japanese name is study the language for a couple of years. ^_^ Here's an example of how two common names look in romaji (the Roman alphabet), hiragana and kanji.

The Japanese do remove shoes before entering a house, but like other aspects of Japan, it's not quite as simple as that. Two core concepts in Japanese society are uchi (in-group, or inside a person's home) and soto (outside of the group, or outside of one's home); shoes are removed when you enter a house because you don't want to bring the dirt and mud from the outside into your uchi. Indoors, slippers are usually worn as a kind of "indoor shoes," but if crossing from a western-style room (with wood flooring, the Japanese can't get enough of wood flooring) to a tatami room, the slippers are removed, in effect making a Japanese-style room inside a modern house a kind of "uchi within an uchi" or a special place that's somehow more "inside" than the rest of the home. The toilet is also a special area, and there are special toilet slippers which you put on when you enter the bathroom, usually with little pictures of Cupid peeing printed on them. In Japanese schools, students arrive from home and put their shoes in their assigned shoes box, changing into special shoes for wearing inside the school. At my kids' school there's a place where kids must go from one building to another, and to solve the problems of having them change their shoes so often they cleverly covered the sidewalk with a roof, in effect defining the outdoor concrete walk as part of the "inside" of the two buildings. Students who play indoor sports like basketball always have two pairs of shoes: one for walking outside and a pair they only wear inside the gym.

The Japanese language has a great many kotowaza or old proverbs, recounting the wisdom of past generations. It's fun for gaijin to study these proverbs, because no one expects a foreigner to know archaic Japanese sayings. One of my favorite kotowaza is ningen banji saiou-ga-uma which means "All things are like Saiou's horse." This refers to an old Chinese story about a man named Saiou whose horse broke his leg -- making everyone say how unfortunate he was. Because he had no horse, though, he didn't have to go off to battle to be killed, so this was a good thing. The moral of the story is, when something good or bad happens, no one can say for sure if it is truly a good or bad thing in the end. Another proverb you hear a lot is ishi no ue ni mo san-nen which is translatable as "Three years sitting on a stone makes it comfortable." In other words, if you're going to try something new, keep at it for at least three years before you give up, so you know if you really liked it or not. If you want to see more Japanese proverbs, here's an interesting page.