Saturday, April 30, 2005

Golden Week, and thoughts on Japan being a "vertical" society

It's time once again for Golden Week, a series of Japanese holidays that happens to fall more or less within the same week. Japanese use the long holiday period to travel, and millions of city-dwellers make a mass exodus away from their homes, visiting family or taking a vacation in other parts of the country. Unfortunately, anyplace that we'd like to take the kids during Golden Week -- the mountains, hot springs, Tokyo Disneyland -- is packed with refugees from Tokyo, making it virtually impossible to go anywhere fun.

It's said in Japan that the U.S. is a "horizontal" society (yoko no shakai) while Japan is "vertical" (tate no shakai), supposedly due to the fact that life in the U.S. is merit-based whereas progression up the social ladder in Japan is founded on age and seniority. While I don't believe that this statement is accurate anymore -- Japan has become a lot more meritorious over the past decade -- it's certainly true that relationships here are very up-down, with a clear idea that the older you are (or the longer you've been in an organization), the more erai (eh-RAI, meaning high-ranking) you are compared to others. This concept of established rank in human relationships is all around you when you're in Japan, you can't get away from it -- it's even built into the language. When a younger person speaks to an older person, even if he's just one year older, he must use keigo, or polite Japanese, which effectively organizes everyone in the room according to level in a way that is impossible to conceive of in English. To not use the "right" language for your level (say, speaking informally to your boss) is disconcerting to others, especially in business or school settings, and makes you sound cheeky. The whole system of vertical relationships may sound odd, but it actually makes interaction work more smoothly, because everyone knows what to expect from everyone else -- it's almost like TCP/IP for humans.

A lot of these "vertical" concepts are encountered by anime fans. Take the idea of a senpai (also written sempai), an upperclassman in a school or senior employee in an organization, and in anime, often the label used by a girl who has a crush on an older boy. Being senpai brings respect from kouhai (underclassmen, younger members of the organization), but it also comes with a requirement that you play the part, helping and guiding those underneath you and doing things like paying for their meals at restaurants. Virtually every kind of group in Japan follows these senpai/kouhai rules, even sumo wrestlers -- I once went to see a daily sumo practice at a stable and was surprised to see how roughly the older wrestlers handled their underlings, slapping them around as a way of reinforcing the up-down relationship. There's a third grouping, too, doukyusei, which are people who are on the same level as you, i.e. classmates at school. Doukyusei relationships are basically neutral in terms of rank or level.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

$70 for a Captain Santa T-shirt, and parent's day at my son's new English school

You've been in Japan too long when you pay over $70 for a Captain Santa T-shirt and realize a few days later how much you really spent. It's true: despite the "deflation" you might have heard about -- which was mainly companies increasing their efficiency during the recession years and passing the savings on to consumers -- Japan can be an expensive place. Virtually everything, from construction materials to gasoline (which is the equivalent of $4.50 a gallon now), is priceier here then in other parts of the world, and food costs consume a quarter of the average household budget. One problem is that the ways goods are sold in Japan is still too structured, with products coming into the hands of consumers through established routes and multiple levels of distribution, which adds to the prices. But there's something about living in Japan that compels a person to want to own things he wouldn't otherwise bother with, like the above-mentioned T-shirt I bought in 1992 featuring Captain Santa, a line of high-end clothing featuring images of Santa at the beach. It was the best T-shirt I've ever owned in my life, but at $70, I probably should have had my head examined. From toilet seats that wash your butt to the 20+ varieties of massage chairs they sell here, there sure are a lot of ways to spend your money in Japan.

Part of raising kids in Japan means attending sankanbi, or parent's day, a day when mothers and fathers can come see their kids in class. Today was the first parent's day at my son's new school, so I took half a day off to go see what his classes were like. The experimental school, which is taught 70% in English and 30% in Japanese, is a completely new concept in Japan, and there's been a lot of anxiety over whether the city could pull it off. My biggest concern was, how can you make a roomful of Japanese kids learning from an American teacher who understands Japanese actually use English? The answer was the "Japanese mat." If a child wants to say something in his native language, he has to ask "May I speak Japanese?" then after getting permission, go stand on the Japanese mat and say what they need to say. I was very impressed. Like all such school events, most parents were armed with the latest video camera for recording their child for all eternity. Most Japanese parents really go overboard when it comes to their kids -- which is called oya-baka or "parent-fool" if you want to know -- but I am exactly the same way myself.

We've got some happy news: we're finally ready to announce the Friends of J-List Affiliate Program! We receive many requests from J-List fans who want to help evangelize our brand of wacky Japanese pop culture, and after many months, we're finally able to launch the program officially. If you've got an established website and want to help people find J-List, you can receive cash commissions or store credit for every order. We've taken an extra-long time to launch the program because we wanted to make sure everything was done right, and we're very happy with the robust affiliate system we've got in place now. To read more about the Friends of J-List Program or sign up, see this page.

Monday, April 25, 2005

The lack of pregnant women in Japan, more about how kanji works, and my karaoke pictures

My Japanese mother-in-law remarked the other day that, "You don't see women with big stomachs very often these days." At first I thought that women were getting thinner, but my wife said no, her mother had been referring to the dearth of pregnant women in Japan. It's true -- the birthrate here is the lowest in the industrialized world, just 1.38 children per couple, and it's getting more and more common to see companies offering products and services to those over 65 over baby-related items. Many products for the elderly that might be taboo to advertise openly in some other countries, such as incontinence products or baldness treatments for women, are advertised on TV regularly here. Part of the reason for the falling birthrate is the high cost and extra stress of raising a child in Japan, especially for Tokyoites living in their usagi-goya (rabbit hutch) apartments. However, not all couples have only one or two children: it's quite common to see variety TV shows documenting the daily lives of families with 12 or 15 children, showing what they do to help each other get through their day. Our favorite Japanese TV show, Hey! Spring of Trivia, had an interesting bit of information: according to current projections, the number of Japanese in the world in the year 3000 will be...7 people.

Japan's writing system can be the most complex aspect of the language, since it combines three separate systems: hiragana and katakana, two syllable-based systems used for expressing Japanese and foreign words, respectively, and around 2000 kanji from China. While the two kana are not hard to master (although they look difficult when you first start), the real neck in studying Japanese is usually kanji, at least for "white boy" gaijin like me. But while kanji can be a challenge, it's not nearly as hard as it looks. First of all, there's a structure to kanji that's quite logical -- for example most characters that have to do with water or liquid have the same left half, called a "radical," that refers to water. Kanji can usually be memorized by cutting them into four quadrants and writing them repeatedly, although be sure to pay attention to learning the correct stroke order. I knew that I would never be able to master something as difficult as kanji unless I really enjoyed studying it, so I came up with ways to reinforce my studies, for example reading manga or going to karaoke bars and reading the kanji on the screen. I had a Chinese friend who was taking level 1 of the Japanese Language Ability Test at the same time I was, and I made it my personal goal to get a higher score than her, despite her natural advantage in already reading kanji. I was lucky -- I managed to beat her score by ten points.

It's not very politically correct to say that all Japanese look the same, but when I first came to live in Japan, it took some time for my brain to get used to seeing so many faces with Japanese characteristics, which in some cases did look very similar to me at the time. After I'd taught English for a month, I took a train to Yokohama to see the sights of the city, and while there I kept thinking I was seeing my new students on the street, despite the fact that I was quite far from home. In reality, there's a lot of variation in the faces of Japanese people, with Mongolian, Korean, Ainu, Portuguese and other blood coursing through the country, but it took me time to get used to my new environment. For the record, gaijin can look the same to Japanese, too, and I've been mistaken for other foreigners on several occasions, usually by older Japanese who haven't had much experience with us. I usually smile and avoid correcting their mistake since it would embarrass them.