Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Right wingers in Japan, and what is the most popular anime?

Hello all. I'm running later than usual because my dentist needed to fix my teeth today, Wednesday, rather than Tuesday, my normal dentist day. The good news is, the two plastic caps are off my teeth and I've got real ceramic teeth that look great. Those guys in Sweden know how to make teeth!

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

For the past week we've been treated toa little freedom of speech, Japan-style: the local right-wing group, angry for some reason at our city's major, has been driving their loudspeaker truck up and down the street calling for his resignation and generally howling bloody murder. By unhappy chance, we live right next to the mayor, which means we've gotten to hear all the ruckus. Exercising one's freedom of speech by broadcasting through loudspeakers is a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, and right wingers (closely associated with the yakuza) can often be seen rolling through Japanese cities playing patriotic World War II songs to the general amusement/annoyance of everyone. During election season, politicians spend hours giving speeches from cars with loudspeakers mounted on top, and in Tokyo, political groups opposing anything from higher taxes to Japan's participation in Iraq park their speaker trucks on a streetcorner and voluminously share their political views with everyone else.

I receive a lot of questions from people interested in living in Japan someday. While it certainly is difficult to come to a country as different from the U.S. or Europe as Japan is, it's certainly doable if you are determined. Many foreigners come to Japan on a tourist visa (3 months) and use that time to look for a job. When you find one, you have to leave the country once to process your working visa then re-enter on that visa -- most gaijin travel to nearby South Korea and do some sightseeing. Alternately, citizens of some lucky nations like Canada, Australia and New Zealand can come on "working holiday" visas instead. Westerners are usually shocked by the difficult system of "key money" you must pay when renting an apartment. Between a security deposit (2 months), a finders-fee (paid to the company that got the apartment for you), first months' rent and "thank you money" (a move-in bonus for your landlord), it can cost $2000-4000 just to move into a small apartment. Of course, any discussion of how to work in Japan is precluded by the fact that to get a working visa at all, you must have a degree from a four-year university. So whenever young people interested in Japan ask me how they can come here, I invariably advise them to find a good, well-rounded university and get a degree -- do that, and you'll be surprised how easily the rest can fall into place.

The most popular anime in Japan isn't Inu Yasha and it isn't Naruto. The anime Japanese identify as their favorite year-in and year-out is Doraemon (do-RAH-ey-mone), the blue "robot of cat type" who came who came from the 22nd century to modern-day Japan to save his friend Nobita-kun, a bit of a slacker, from marrying a different girl than history intended. Together they have many adventures, usually using the many magic items that Doraemon carries in his fourth-dimensional pocket, like the Dokodemo Door ("anywhere door") that lets him teleport to any place, a "small light" that shrinks anything it shines on, and his trusty time machine, the cause of many Back to the Future-style plot twists. The current staff of the long-running series including legendary Nobuyo Oyama, the voice of Doraemon since 1973, is due to retire soon, ending an era for Japanese fans of the show.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Valentines Day in Japan, and dialects

Hello all. Finished the update a little late today. I'm in a hurry to get home (see below for the reason why) so I'm rushing.

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

Hello and Happy Valentines Day from Japan! Today is the day that men of all ages look forward to, when they get chocolate from wives, girlfriends or daughters. My son and I caught the smell of something delicious cooking in the kitchen last night, and we're both looking forward to eating some hand-made chocolates when we get home. There are many customs that have to do with gift giving in Japan, and one of them is that you must always give a gift in return (o-kaeshi) when you receive something. March 14th has been designated White Day by Japan's chocolate-and-gift industry, the day that men can return the favor to women who gave them chocolate on Valentines Day by giving them something in return. If you've got someone special to give a gift to, why not consider a J-List gift certificate? It's not chocolate, but it's almost as good.

In the same way that English spoken in New York or Boston can be quite different from California or Texas, the dialects used in the various parts of Japan can be quite unique, a situation exacerbated by the fact that Japanese tend to be less mobile than Americans, often living all their lives in the same region. Standard Japanese is defined as the dialect spoken in Tokyo, and Tokyo Japanese corresponds to "boring white guy English." Far more colorful is Kansai-ben, the dialect of the Osaka area, spoken by entertainers in Japan for the same reason that Jerry Seinfeld wouldn't be Jerry Seinfeld without his New York accent. Other famous dialects include Okinawa-ben with its unique intonation, the elegant-sounding Kyoto-ben, and Tohoku-ben, the impossible-to-understand Japanese spoken in the cold land north of Tokyo. Another well-defined dialect is "gaijiin-ben," the oddly over-intoned Japanese spoken by foreigners, which sounds cute to Japanese ears. It's common for DJs and TV announcers to speak with "gaijin" accents in order to sound cool to young people, and foreigners speaking oddly-accented Japanese are a staple in TV commercials.

When a person learns a foreign language, they tend to be very creative in that language because they lack the inhibitions that native speakers have developed over time. After all, the famous Swatch brand name was created by Swiss who didn't realize that it sounded dorky in English until it was a household name. I've seen this tendency to be creative using English time and time again in Japan, for example in the many products that use English to invoke an emotional response, like Melty Kiss (chocolate fudge sold only in the winter). The other day I was eating some Triscuits which I had brought from the U.S., and offered one to my son. He turned up his nose, though, saying that he didn't want to eat a "tatami cracker" (since it looked to him like a Japanese tatami mat), which struck me as an interesting observation. Back when I taught ESL, I used a list of road signs to create a discussion with some students about what the signs might mean. One sign, a picture of a footprint over a leaf, was giving them trouble, but one student came up with a possible meaning: "Don't despise Canada." The correct answer was "nature walk" but his answer was a lot more creative.