Friday, June 17, 2005

Beautiful girls wearing Swatches, uses of the word "wa" and the concept of style in Japan

Sometimes you don't know what Japan will throw at you next. Once I was shopping in Tokyo, checking out the Tokyu Hands department store, when at least fifty beautiful girls appeared and started marching past me in a military-style line. They all had on Swatch T-shirts and sported attractive Swatch watches on each arm as they marched around advertising the famous brand name while I looked on. Trains in Tokyo are filled with advertisements for various products and services, and sometimes a company will reserve every single ad in a train to ensure that passengers see its message. Once I got into a train on the Yama-no-te (the convenient loop line that runs around Tokyo) and was surprised to see hundreds of Apple "Switcher" ads hung everywhere. When I first came to Japan, I didn't know about Coming-of-Age day, a ceremony for young people who have turned 20 to celebrate their new status as adults. It's common for females to show up in a beautiful new kimono, and when I saw about 500 kimono-clad girls walking past me to attend the ceremony, I nearly fell off my mountain bike in surprise.

One of the most enigmatic Japanese words out there is wa, which is generally translated as "harmony" and often used in English in sentences like, "Hey man, you're messin' with my wa." The character has other meanings, too, including "peace" as well as referring to Japan itself. It can be combined with other characters to form words like heiwa (peace), washiki (Japanese-style, as in a Japanese-style toilet), washitsu (Japanese room, e.g. a tatami room), and wagyu (Japanese beef, e.g. the famous beer-fed Kobe beef). If you put the character for big in front of wa, you've just written Yamato, the name of the first civilization to emerge in Japan and the term that refers to the main branch of the Japanese people, as well as the famous battleship from World War II.

Japan can be a very style-oriented place at times, and it seems that everyone is concerned about looking good. The universal word for "cool" in Japanese is kakko ii (KAH-koe EE, lit. "good style"), while the opposite is kakko warui (KAH-koe wa-roo-EE, "bad style," e.g. dorky). Another word that describes an absence of coolness is dasai (dah-SAI, out of fashion, uncool), which supposedly started out as a derogative word for people from half-rural, half-urban Saitama Prefecture, just north of Tokyo. Not unlike the relationship between Los Angeles and Orange County, there's a perceived lack of sophistication among Saitamans as seen by Tokyoites.

We have another cool Japanese T-shirt for you today, one that we're quite proud of: it's a collection of interesting Japanese words that you encounter every day when you live in Japan, things like futon (Japanese bed) and hashi (chopsticks) and takoyaki (octopus-filled batter balls), with fun pictures of the words along with what they're called. We've posted a standard sized shirt for men along with a sexy fitted cap-sleeve for girls. It's a cool shirt that will teach you something you didn't know about Japan!

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