Saturday, August 20, 2005

Notes from Otakon in Baltimore, diappearing Japanese buildings, and more on bilingualism

Well, we're here at Otakon in Baltimore, and we're having a great time, surrounded by America's most vibrant young people, all filled with love of Japan and most decked out in amazing anime costumes. If you're at the show, we hope you'll come by booth 509 and say hello to us! (If you are planning on coming to the show but haven't registered yet, do check the convention website here, as at-the-door registration is probably closed already.)

You've been in Japan too long when you walk through your neighborhood, and a house that was there yesterday is gone without a trace, and you don't blink. Yes, among the things the Japanese are especially good at, making buildings disappear almost overnight seems to be one of them. The other day I was driving by our favorite sento (public bath), which had unfortunately gone out of business a couple of months before. The building had disappeared, as if it had never stood, replaced by a perfectly flat empty lot that will hopefully not become yet another pachinko parlor (we've got plenty of those in our city already). Another time a Seven Eleven that had been located up against a large road was suddenly moved back 40 feet or so. The company had apparently bought the parcel of land behind their store and somehow moved the entire convenience store back to leave more room for parking in the front -- it was kind of scary, actually.

When you are fluent in two languages, there are some interesting things that happen to your speech. First, bilinguals will generally engage in what's called code-switching when speaking to other bilingual people, mixing both languages sometimes randomly, or sometimes using words from whichever language seem to fit that situation better. This can lead to another phenomenon, linguistically known as interference, when grammar or pronunciation from one language interfere with the operation of the other. My wife often peppers her Japanese with English words, throwing in terms like arrange and organize and situation instead of the corresponding Japanese words, which causes confusion by her Japanese friends, who aren't always sure what she's trying to say. Her English vocabulary invades the Japanese side of her brain, creating minor confusion.

The Japanese have an interesting sense of things sometimes, which never fails to impress me. A balding man with a comb-over and lines of hair on the top of his said is said to have "bar code hair," which is certainly an interesting way to look at things. On one Japanese TV show I caught, they touched a bar code reader to men's hair to see what amount came up on the register, then they gave that amount of money to each man.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Peter on the other side of the world, uses for the word "kokoro," and Japanese who can't read their own language

I never cease to be amazed at the Internet, which enables a small company like J-List bring so many interesting and wacky products to Japanophiles in every corner of the world, along with our "postcard from Japan" emails. I regularly hop between Japan and San Diego, but now I've gone even further, to Maryland to visit family before attending Otakon this weekend. Right now I'm sitting on a balcony watching the waterbugs zip over the Severn River that feeds into the Chesapeake Bay, while the full moon looks down at me. If you'll be at Otakon, we'll see you there! (For info on the show, see this page.)

One Japanese word I like a lot is kokoro, which can be a little difficult to translate into English. Basically, kokoro means the heart, but the philosophical and metaphysical aspects of it -- it's often translated into English as as soul, spirit and mind. Kokoro is your inner self, similar to your soul, although there's a more complex word for that particular idea (tamashii). The kokoro is thought to reside in the chest, in contrast to most Westerners, who would probably put the mind's physical location as being inside the head. The concept of reading one's mind is expressed in Japanese as kokoro o yomu (to read one's heart), and if something really hurt you you might say kokoro ga itamu (my heart hurts). There are other words in Japanese that correspond to other meanings of the English word heart, such as shinzo (the heart that's beating in your chest right now) and haato (the English word rendered with a Japanese accent, which describes the classic heart shape). Learning a language is fun because it makes you realize that complex ideas can't be simply brought over on a 1-to-1 basis all the time, which makes you reflect more on what language is all about.

A strange aspect of written Japanese is that many people cannot read their own language. While the vast majority of Japanese can read the 1900+ joyo kanji (the so-called "general use" characters that all Japanese must learn by the time they graduate from high school), there are many very difficult characters that fall outside of the "official" lists, and thus, people aren't sure how to pronounce them. I was reminded of this fact when we told my daughter to write a postcard to her Japanese teacher, but my wife didn't know how to read her teacher's name -- names of people are some of the hardest kanji to read, since there are so many ways to write them, just as there are many alternate spellings for names in the West. Place names are also difficult, unless you happened to grow up in that area. All the place names in Northern Japan, which was inhabited by the indigenous Ainu people for thousands of years, have odd names can't be written with standard characters -- and as a result, most Japanese often can't read the names.

Remember that Halloween is coming soon. J-List offers many fun items that can make for a unique costume, from the amazing high school uniforms from Matsukameya to great cosplay reference books like Layers and Cosmode. Plan your Halloween surprise and order early at J-List -- we're ready for your order!

Monday, August 15, 2005

Anniversary of the end of the war, the holiest of Japanese holidays, and all about babies in Japan

Today is the 60th anniversary of Japan's surrender, ending the terror that was the War in the Pacific, as it's usually called here. During my fourteen years in Japan, I've travelled quite extensively and have talked with many people here about the war, whenever I could do so tactfully. Almost all Japanese I've talked with are glad that Japan lost the war, since it paved the way for equalization of Japanese society and real democracy. My mother-in-law especially reveres General MacArthur for his efforts to equalize Japan, taking land away from large estates and zaibatsu business cartels and distributing it to those who had no land. Sometimes these conversations can get a little weird -- in rural Toyama Prefecture, I was eating with the family of a friend when their (somewhat inebriated) uncle started sobbing, "Why did giant America bring war to little Japan?" The question of why a country with the land area of Nebraska and no meaningful natural resources thought they could take on the world and somehow win is a complex one -- what was Japan thinking? I think part of the answer lies in what's known as seiyo suhai shugi (西洋崇拝主義, literally meaning "worship of the West-ism"). Ever since Japan began modernizing in the 1870s, it's looked with great respect at the powers of Europe and America, especially the grand British Empire, another tiny island nation that managed to exert influence over the entire world. Japan wanted more than anything to become a country that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those great nations, and I believe its terrible march to war and imperialism was a case of "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" taken to its most horrific extreme.

We're in the middle of the Japanese Obon ("oh bone") holidays, something similar to Thanksgiving in the U.S., a time when millions of people return home to their inaka (ee-NAH-KAH, their rural hometowns) to see loved ones and pay visits to the graves of family members who have passed away. Tokyo becomes a ghost town during this season, with almost every company closed for business. Unfortunately, anyone trying to use the roads during this special holiday season has to plan around the massive "U-turn," when everyone turns around to head back into Tokyo. Already there are traffic jams of up to 40 km snaking back to the capital, and today is only the second to last day of Obon -- it will be three times as bad tomorrow.

We've got more happy news around here: Yasu's daughter was born this morning, a strong and healthy baby girl named Riko-chan. In Japan, babies are usually born in small "maternity hospitals" that only deliver babies, rather than maternity wards of large hospitals. There are several of these clinics in each city, and competition between them can be quite fierce -- the place where our children were born lured us with full-course French cuisine for my wife while she was recuperating, and a complimentary video featuring Ultrasound footage of each of our kids as they grew in utero, and of us holding them after they were born. Japan has a lot of strong beliefs about childbirth -- I might use the word "superstitions" but my wife would get mad at me. For example, for the first week after giving birth a woman is not allowed to touch water at all or it will make her blood boil (or something like that). I remember my mother-in-law bustling around the house making sure the dishes and laundry were done so my wife didn't have to worry herself with it.

Our newest region-free DVD player, the AMW M-280 which features a 7" screen for viewing DVDs anywhere you like, is a smash hit. The fully region-free player features long playing time on battery, and includes such extras as 32X rewind and fast forward, full remote with all controls replicated on the player itself (in case you don't have the remote handy), the ability to output to a TV and also accept video input from another video source and display it on the screen (mobile PS2 anyone?), and more. I've updated the description to reflect one feature I forgot to list on Friday, a "disc memory" function that plays the disc from the last position you were watching when you turned the player off (a feature I am personally quite fond of).