Saturday, April 23, 2005

J-List drink party, funny phrases you can try at home, and thoughts on Japanese English

Japanese students study a total of six years of English, even more if they go on to college, and even though most people don't attain real conversational fluency, English does seep into the culture here in many interesting ways. The Japanese use thousands of foreign-loan words in their daily lives, mostly from English, but sometimes the meanings get changed a little. In Japanese usage, "milk" (miruku) always refers to powdered creamer for your coffee, and some words for makeup are shifted in meaning: "rouge" means lipstick and "manicure" means nail polish. Sometimes the Japanese will use words from languages other than English for style or phonetic reasons. For example, to avoid problems with similar words such as "crown" and "clown," they turn to French for the latter term: pierrot. Gaijin living here often pick up Engrish words like phone box (phone booth), cash corner (ATM) stand and pocket bell (beeper) and regularly embarrass ourselves using these words with other foreigners.

There are some interesting expressions that the Japanese use a lot in speech, which can be fun for foreigners to pick up and use since no one expects us to know them. If something is too small, like your end-of-year bonus or your bank account, it's suzume no namida (soo-zoo-meh no nah-mee-da), which means the tear of a sparrow. To express the concept of flattering or brown-nosing someone, there's the phrase goma-suri which means to grind up sesame seeds -- so if you laugh at a dumb joke your boss makes, you're grinding his sesame seeds for him. If you're hiding something but your secret is discovered, the Japanese would say shippo ga deta which means that your tail has popped out from inside your clothes -- somewhat similar to the phrase "a wolf in sheep's clothing" in English. And if someone is kao ga hiroi they literally have a "wide face" -- which means that everyone knows them and that they have a lot of influence.

The J-List staff had fun last night at a "welcome party" for two new employees. We gathered at our favorite beer restaurant and had a nice time welcoming the new staff members to our little group. We ate and drank, then all went out for a few hours in a karaoke box. Having official "drink parties" is an interesting aspect to company life in Japan, and there are several events throughout the year where the J-List staff gathers to have fun and relax outside of the workplace.

One of the most popular products we sell here at J-List are the original Japanese T-shirts with messages like "I'm looking for a Japanese Girlfriend." Our two newest T-shirt designs are bizarre parodies of famous Japanese products, Pocky chocolate stick snacks and Black Black caffeine gum. Very wacky and off-color, the shirts look great, and are sure to get giggles from any Japanese who see them. See the new shirts on the site now.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

New and old in Japan, and listening to the armed forces radio from Yokosuka

Japan can really be a place of contrasting images. On the one hand, it's a modern, technologically advanced country that makes some of the most amazing products in the world. On the other hand, other aspects of Japan can look -- at least to my outsider's eyes -- quite backwards sometimes. Up until three years ago, when my son entered the first grade, students were assigned a number in alphabetical order, and all the boys were numbered before all the girls. Starting with the year my son started school, however, the system changed, allowing boys and girls to be numbered and seated together. Before my wife went to the U.S. to study English, she worked as an OL, an "office lady" in a Japanese company, where she was required to put in several hours memorizing which green tea cups went with which male employees, which male employees liked their green tea served a certain way, and what order to hand the tea cups out in. Sometimes the tendency of Japan to preserve the old ways is good, though. Although I can buy incredibly advanced electronics less than a kilometer from my house, it's not uncommon to hear the voice of our local ishiyaki imo (EE-she-YAH-kii EE-moh) seller, who drives his truck around selling delicious stone-baked sweet potatoes.

Sometimes it does seem that the often-repeated idea that Japan runs a decade or more behind the West socially might be true. At least, Japan always seems to be in a state of imitating the U.S. and Europe in its institutions rather than taking the lead. Laws requiring child safety seats or forbidding sexual harassment in the workplace seem to have come a steady 10-15 years behind the U.S., and when Japan implemented a 401(k) type of system they gave it the original name of "Japan 401(k)." The next social change seems to be smoking: over the past few years, Japan has done a lot to limit where people can smoke, although usually tying this to politeness and good manners rather than fear of legal penalties. Now in most parts of Tokyo it's illegal to smoke while walking outdoors, and as a result, there are special "smoking corners" in parts of the city, establishments where all you do is walk in, sit down and light up, happy in the knowledge that you're "Smokin' Clean" (Japan Tobacco's slogan for smoking with good manners).

You've been in Japan too long when you air-drum in your car while listening to the U.S. Military radio news opening, which goes "here's what happening...around the Kanto Plain." The only English radio available in the Tokyo area is the Far East Network, the AM radio station that serves the U.S. military forces stationed in Japan, and it's a staple of civilian gaijin here, especially when driving somewhere. In addition to NPR news and other programming, FEN serves up top forty and country music countdowns on the weekend, an hour of Rush Limbaugh every weeknight, and the occasional football game. Because it's a non-profit station, in place of radio commercials they play short pieces on "our proud military heritage" which give interesting tidbits of military history from the past. As a result, I know quite a lot about the history of the U.S. armed forces.

New and old in Japan, and listening to the armed forces radio from Yokosuka

Japan can really be a place of contrasting images. On the one hand, it's a modern, technologically advanced country that makes some of the most amazing products in the world. On the other hand, other aspects of Japan can look -- at least to my outsider's eyes -- quite backwards sometimes. Up until three years ago, when my son entered the first grade, students were assigned a number in alphabetical order, and all the boys were numbered before all the girls. Starting with the year my son started school, however, the system changed, allowing boys and girls to be numbered and seated together. Before my wife went to the U.S. to study English, she worked as an OL, an "office lady" in a Japanese company, where she was required to put in several hours memorizing which green tea cups went with which male employees, which male employees liked their green tea served a certain way, and what order to hand the tea cups out in. Sometimes the tendency of Japan to preserve the old ways is good, though. Although I can buy incredibly advanced electronics less than a kilometer from my house, it's not uncommon to hear the voice of our local ishiyaki imo (EE-she-YAH-kii EE-moh) seller, who drives his truck around selling delicious stone-baked sweet potatoes.

Sometimes it does seem that the often-repeated idea that Japan runs a decade or more behind the West socially might be true. At least, Japan always seems to be in a state of imitating the U.S. and Europe in its institutions rather than taking the lead. Laws requiring child safety seats or forbidding sexual harassment in the workplace seem to have come a steady 10-15 years behind the U.S., and when Japan implemented a 401(k) type of system they gave it the original name of "Japan 401(k)." The next social change seems to be smoking: over the past few years, Japan has done a lot to limit where people can smoke, although usually tying this to politeness and good manners rather than fear of legal penalties. Now in most parts of Tokyo it's illegal to smoke while walking outdoors, and as a result, there are special "smoking corners" in parts of the city, establishments where all you do is walk in, sit down and light up, happy in the knowledge that you're "Smokin' Clean" (Japan Tobacco's slogan for smoking with good manners).

You've been in Japan too long when you air-drum in your car while listening to the U.S. Military radio news opening, which goes "here's what happening...around the Kanto Plain." The only English radio available in the Tokyo area is the Far East Network, the AM radio station that serves the U.S. military forces stationed in Japan, and it's a staple of civilian gaijin here, especially when driving somewhere. In addition to NPR news and other programming, FEN serves up top forty and country music countdowns on the weekend, an hour of Rush Limbaugh every weeknight, and the occasional football game. Because it's a non-profit station, in place of radio commercials they play short pieces on "our proud military heritage" which give interesting tidbits of military history from the past. As a result, I know quite a lot about the history of the U.S. armed forces.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Japan, China and the ghosts of the past on both sides

There are big problems in China as demonstrators in several cities engage in protests against Japan, calling for boycotts of Japanese products and even making threats of violence -- one protestor brandished a gun at some Japanese journalists, although it turned out to be a replica. In Beijing, thousands of protestors have been destroying Japanese businesses, wrecking Japanese cars and throwing rocks at the embassy. A big part of the issue are Japanese history textbooks which China and South Korea say gloss over the crimes of the Japanese military during World War II. I watched an interesting news report on the textbook issues which compared the eight history texts approved for use by the Ministry of Education, and explained the problem areas of each -- in general, only 2-3 pages were devoted to the issue of war crimes in each book. Chinese textbooks go to the other extreme, with half the content of one book shown devoted to the Sino-Japanese war, illustrated with many inflammatory pictures of corpses and emotional statements that have no place in the study of history. The Japanese textbook that caused the most anger is used in only 18 schools here and has been denounced by many Japanese educators, but this hasn't swayed the demonstrators. One theory about the current crisis put forth on Japanese TV is that after the Tiananmen Square uprisings, China increased "loyalty education" for children in schools, much of which focused on Japan as a national enemy. The generation that was in school in 1989 are now in their 20s, and they're the ones who are out demonstrating now.

The issue is a very difficult one to resolve. Although Japan has officially apologized to China seventeen times since 1974, it has mostly failed to show real reflection about the terrible things it did in the 1930s. Japanese are sometimes willing to say "that was a long time ago" about China and Korea, but never about Hiroshima. On the other hand, I've had American friends who dismissed American atrocities in Vietnam with the same argument, so maybe all of us are capable of a similar reaction under the right circumstances. Another problem that comes up often is the role of Yasukuni, a shrine for the remembrance of Japanese soldiers killed during the war, which wouldn't be a problem except that the Japanese military leaders most responsible for the war are also interred in graves on the shrine's grounds. In Washington D.C. there are many places where Americans can go and reflect on their own country's past, like Arlington National Cemetery or the Iwo Jima monument, but Japan has only Yasukuni to fill all of these roles. Maybe one solution would be the creation of a "secular" monument to honor Japan's soldiers without bruising the feelings of neighboring countries?