Friday, May 06, 2005

All about guns in Japan, tatami mats, and the tyranny of the majority

One of the preconceptions I had before coming to Japan was that there were no guns here at all, so I was quite surprised when I went up into the mountains in my prefecture and noticed a NO HUNTING sign. It turns out that hunting of pheasant, wild boar and other animals is legal in many parts of Japan, although there's an intense licensing requirement that tests for both knowledge of gun safety and mental stability of the owner (members of radical political parties need not apply). I have a Japanese friend who builds custom frames for racing bicycles, and he once showed me his prized collection of Remington rifles, which he never gets to fire because he had a weak heart, he told me dejectedly. Outside of hunting circles, guns are very rare in Japan, only possessed by police and criminals. Gun crimes are also almost nonexistent -- in 2000, 8493 Americans were killed by firearms, vs. 22 in Japan, with most of those being violence between yakuza gangsters. The fact that guns are hard to get doesn't deter "gun otaku" who love all things military: instead of buying real guns, they collect the realistic toy replicas that shoot 6 mm plastic pellets. Back when I was teaching English, by far the most common question from my students was "Did you own a gun back in the USA?"

Most foreigners I've known have a bit of a fixation with tatami mats when they first come to Japan. A unique symbol of minimalist interior design, tatami are rectangular mats made of igusa straw, which are pleasant to sit or lie on, and smell nice. While older Japanese houses used to feature the mats in every room, tatami have become less and less common in modern homes. In most houses, such as ours, there's a single washitsu (Japanese-style room) with tatami mats and shoji paper doors, but the rest of the house is done in Western style. The decline in tatami mats is partially because of changes in Japanese tastes -- people prefer the convenience of chairs and beds to living on the floor -- but tatami are also very hard to keep clean, and they can become a haven for dust mites. Because tatami are always the same size, roughly the space one man needs to sleep, it's useful to think of a room in terms of how many mats it holds, or would hold if there were mats laid down. An average-sized room is 6-jo (jo is the Chinese pronunciation for the tatami character), and a small room for a poor college student would likely be a 4.5-jo. After living in Japan for 14 years, I am incapable of perceiving the size of a room in square feet, but I can picture how big a room is in tatami mats very easily.

I've talked before about Japan's tendency to give in to the "tyranny of the masses" -- for example, skim milk is impossible to find in Japan because most Japanese like thick, creamy milk with 4.7 per cent milkfat, so only the majority gets what it wants. Similarly, there are virtually no vegetarians here, so vegans visiting from overseas are often unhappy to find meat or animal products in almost every kind of food prepared in Japan. In a similar show of over-uniformity, Japanese parents sometimes "fix" children who show signs of left-handedness, and force them to use their right hands. The rationale used to be that kids need to learn how to do math using an abacus, which can only be used with the right hand. Supposedly they don't fix lefties anymore, but I distinctly remember my wife gently "correcting" our son when he was a baby and tried to do something with his left hand. Incidentally, my wife has the equivalent of a brown belt in abacus calculation, and can sit there and add up complex numbers even by moving her hand over an imagery abacus -- she doesn't need a real one.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

More on Japan's vertical society, wisdom from Japanese manga, and an airplane that's feeling "upset"

Japan's tendency to rank individuals in groups as senpai (sem-PAI, a senior member of a group, or upperclassman) and kouhai (koh-HAI, a junior member, or underclassman) can be puzzling to outsiders. Although it's endured for centuries, the Japanese vertical social system is often put under pressure due to recent social changes. In the old days of Japan's high period of economic growth, nearly everyone enjoyed lifetime employment: you joined a company at age 23 and slowly rose up the ladder as you got older, so senpai/kouhai relationships nearly always progressed parallel to the age of employees. In Japan today, however, it is quite possible for a 35 year old to experience risutora (Japanese for being laid off from a job, from the English word "restructure") and find himself working under a 25 year old at a new company. This creates a new problem: which has seniority? In the context of the workplace, it's the employee who joined the company first that is considered to be the senpai, even though he may be younger in age.

You can learn a lot about Japanese social relationships by reading manga comics, and one of my personal favorites was Maison Ikkoku, the Rumiko Takahashi classic that tells the story of a Japanese man, Godai, and his attempts to woo the manager of the apartment he lives in, the recently widowed Kyoko. During the rocky courtship of Godai and Kyoko, he always speaks to her with polite Japanese, attaching the formal -san to her name (e.g. Kyoko-san) because she's two years older than him. Only at their wedding reception, after he's become her husband and thus on the same level as her, can be bring himself to drop the formal -san ending and call her by her name, Kyoko. While many of the invisible social rules at work in Japan may seem odd, they do exist in English, too. I'm currently reading the Harry Potter novels to my son, and last night there was a scene in which Professor Dumbledore called Professor Snape by his first name, Severus. Why did he do that? my son wanted to know, since he could never conceive of calling his teachers by their first names. So we talked about the differences between how names are used in Japanese and English.

A person's environment really shapes how they perceive the world. Once we took my daughter to an eye doctor in the U.S., who showed her some pictures and asked her to identify them so he could check her vision. The pictures included basic objects like a telephone, a shoe and so on, but some of the pictures looked so odd to her Japanese eyes that she couldn't identify the objects correctly, even though she could see them fine. The other day she found a toy airplane I'd had sitting around the house, a model of an experimental weapon made by Germany during World War II. "This airplane looks upset," she said to me. She had seen the iron cross on the German plane as the anime mark for being angry or upset.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Various surprises that were waiting for me when I went to live in Japan

Before I moved to Japan, I had a lot of preconceptions about what life would be like here, based on watching Japanese animation and dramas. But when I arrived here back in 1991, I was actually surprised at some of the things I didn't find, starting with the near total lack of anything bearing the name teriyaki -- the flavoring is used but is never referred to with that name, except the McDonald's Teriyaki McBurger. I'd read a few James Clavell novels, and subliminally expected the Asian idea of "face" to be at least a small part of Japanese life -- yet the concept is so rarely mentioned here, it took me several years to learn how to express it in Japanese. I thought of Japan as being an ultra-modern country, yet when I got here, my life resembled the year I spent in New Zealand back in the 1970s -- things that most Americans take for granted like dishwashers and electric dryers were extremely rare in Japan. There were plenty of things I didn't expect to see, too, like Jehovah's Witnesses (yes, they have them here), grown-up women who act kawaii (cute) like silly anime characters, whole city grids without a single named street, Japanese translations of Harlequin Romance novels, and more vending machines within walking distance of my house than on the entire SDSU campus.

One unique aspect of the Japanese language is the high number of foreign-loan words used in daily life. The Japanese even have a writing system that's used exclusively for writing foreign words, katakana. Like its sister hiragana, katakana lets you express sounds as syllables, like ka-ki-ku-ke-ko, but never the consonant "k" by itself. Modern written Japanese is a constantly churning mix of kanji (for core meaning), hiragana (for grammatical particles) and katakana (for expressing words from other languages). Certain categories of words tend to be borrowed from English -- anything having to do with cars or technology, and many occupation titles (engineer, illustrator, programmer). Often foreign words are imported with slightly altered meanings -- for example, the Japanese use a Japanese word for a street address (juusho), but use the English word adoresu for referring to an email address. The problem is that more and more words are written in katakana these days, which creates a "comprehension gap" between young and old Japanese, with people over 40 understanding less and less. The problem is so bad that there are actually "katakana dictionaries" you can buy in stores, which help explain what these strange foreign words mean. (The Wordtank electronic dictionaries that J-List sells also include katakana dictionaries.) Just as some English speakers throw a dash of French into their writing to show off their intelligence, Japanese businessmen and news commentators love to pepper their speech with English words like "consensus" and "manifesto" and "initiative" which can cause plenty of confusion.