Saturday, September 24, 2005

More on language and values, and a bunch of Japanese words that are fun to learn (?)

The study of language is never merely about learning vocabulary words and grammar -- if done right, those who acquire a second language will also learn plenty about the beliefs and ideas of speakers of that language. The Japanese tend to have a strong sense of the way things should be done, and often these convictions are reflected in the words that they use. In Japan, people seem to have a shared "common sense," called joshiki (JOH-shki、常識) that they can all access, which is one reason Japanese are more in harmony with each other than people in other parts of the world. In Japan, it's quite an insult to say joshiki ga nai 常識がない about someone -- saying that a person lacks common sense that everyone should have. There's usually a "right" way to do things here, and this is embodied in the words chanto ちゃんと (properly, as it should be) or chanto shita ちゃんとした (proper, correct), as seen in sentences like, chanto shita shigoto ni tukinasai ちゃんとした仕事に就きなさい (find yourself a proper job) or, chanto benkyo shite kudasai ちゃんと勉強してください (please study [like you're supposed to]). Finally, one of the best compliments you can make of a person is that they are shikkari shiteiru しっかりしている (she-KAR-ree sh-TE-ee-ru), which means someone who is steady, hardworking, and does what is expected of them.

The word shikkari しっかり (stable, reliable) is actually one of a complex class of very descriptive words that can be quite challenging for foreigners to learn because they're all so similar to each other, yet their meanings are so different. Another word from this group is sappari さっぱり (sa-PAH-ree, fresh, clean), as in the phrase "Sappari shita!" さっぱりした! (I feel so refreshed!), said after you get out of a hot bath. If you closely resemble someone else in your family, you could use the word sokkuri そっくり to describe how similar you are, for example anata wa John ni sokkuri desu あなたはジョンにそっくりです (you are the spitting image of John). Other words from this group include gakkari がっかり (gah-KAH-ree), the feeling of being let down or disappointed; kossori こっそり (koh-SOH-ree), doing something secretly; and pittari ぴったり (pi-TAH-ree), describing a perfect fit.

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Leaving Tokyo now. I like to take the Shinkansen (i.e. the Bullet Train) when I can, since it's so fast and comfortable.



This was soon after the London bombings, and Japan had carefully closed all trash cans to keep people from putting bombs inside them.



These trash cans were still in use on the platform. They have been augmented somewhat to make it easy to see inside them, to improve security.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The stability of the Japanese people, and how words from English are "plugged into" Japanese

Japanese have always impressed me as a very stable people, often living their entire lives in the same area and having strong local communities. My wife's family has been living in our city for as long as records exist, and she grew up knowing everyone in our neighborhood. There's a word that describes a close friend you've had since childhood, osana-najimi 幼なじみ (oh-SAH-NAH NAH-gee-mee) and now our children play with the kids of neighbors my wife used to play with when she was small. When our kids started elementary school, they went to the school that my wife went to 30 years ago...which was also the school that her mother went to before that, something that totally boggles my American mind. I've moved many times during my life, living on the East Coast of the U.S., New Zealand, San Diego and ultimately Japan, and the idea of having roots that go back that far is really amazing to me.

There's nothing more interesting than studying a foreign language, of learning the way its unique grammatical rules work so you can form sentences and ideas and communicate with others. Language is always rule based, and even dialects like Ebonics and Cockney which may sound "wrong" to speakers of standard English are formed around their own suites of unique grammatical rules. The Japanese make heavy use of foreign loan words, usually borrowed from English, but since the grammar of the two languages is different, something is needed to "bridge" the two. Conveniently, there are two such grammatical aides built right into Japanese. The first is the adjective particle na which allows an adjective to be plugged into a Japanese sentence without breaking any rules, and you can hear phrases like surimu na onna スリムな女 (a slim, slender woman), dandii na otoko ダンディーな男 (a "dandy" or handsome man), and torendii na dorama トレンディーなドラマ (the latest trendy drama on television). I've even heard the word "epoch-making" used in this fashion -- as in, epokkumeekingu na ibento エポックメーキングなイベント (in case you are wondering, the word also comes up automatically in the Japanese input method), presumably meaning an event that is truly Earth-shattering in nature. The other tool to help foreign words be used in Japanese is the catch-all verb suru which means "to do." Words you might hear in Japanese include getto suru ゲットする (GET-toh suru, to get or find something), doraibu suru ドライブする (doh-RAH-ee-bu suru, to go for a drive), kamingu auto suru カミングアウトする (kah-min-GU ah-OO-toh suru, lit. to do "coming out" or to come out of the closet about something), and of course, sekkusu suru セックスする (to have, well, you know). The staff at J-List uses lots of English in their Japanese, too, and you can hear terms like sukyan suru (to scan something), pikku suru (to pick products in preparation for shipping) being used everyday.

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Hanging around Akiba. This is an advertisement for a pachinko machine company. His hair is a big pachinko ball, see?



An ad for AU's newest service, auctions you can participate in with your keitai (cell phone). They were posting some Star Wars items that people could bid on.



This is something I'm interested in reading. It's the story of how Char Aznable (formerly known as Casval Rem Daikun) and his sister survived the assassination of their father by the Zabi Family, by Yasukazu Yoshikazu. It's up there with Char's Deleted Affair, the story of Char's secret love with Hamaan Kahn. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you're not an old school anime fan.



I went to Shibuya with some friends. This is one of the top ten famous buildings in Tokyo, the Shibya 109 building. We were hunting for...



Guinness, at a very nice Irish pub we found. The beer was good, the fish and chips were tasty, and we were among friends.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

On the inability of people living in Japan to fix their own cars, and days of the week in Japanese

For some reason, living in Japan robs a person of the ability to open the hood of their car. When I lived in the U.S., I was quite comfortable giving my car a tune-up, changing spark plugs and so on, but since coming to Japan I find I haven't touched my car's engine in over a decade. My wife is indicative of most Japanese on the subject of auto maintenance -- she recently said to me, "I opened my hood once, but I didn't know which one was the engine." This is partially due to excellent Japanese service -- a helpful uniformed employee will cheerfully check your oil and air when you buy a tank of gas -- but another reason is "sha-ken," a government-mandated automobile maintenance check-up you have to get every two years. Since sha-ken is expensive, costing $800 or more, which includes various road taxes, foreigners generally hate it, but the upside is that cars are safer and you get your regular maintenance done for you as part of the deal. The sha-ken check-ups have a somewhat cynical purpose too: since new cars get three years without having to get the check-up, it provides a useful excuse for Japanese to buy a new car sooner than they otherwise would, and no doubt contributes millions to car manufacturers' bottom lines. Motorcycles also have sha-ken, although those with 250 cc and smaller engines don't, which creates more demand for small-engine motorcycles than would exist in other countries.

One of the most respected positions in Japanese life is that of shacho 社長, or company president, and like some other terms such as sensei 先生 (which literally means "the one who was born before me" and is said to teachers, doctors and politicians), it indicates a high level of respect. As in America, business leaders are looked up to, and the news media regularly reports on leaders like Goshn-shacho (the man who turned Nissan around), the hardworking Masayoshi Son-shacho of Sofbank, and of course charismatic Livedoor president Takafumi Horie, who recently tried to win his first seat in the Japanese Diet but failed in the last election. The term shacho is sometimes thrown around with little care for its actual meaning. If you go into a Japanese bar, the lady who pours your drink will likely call you shacho to make you feel good.

Memorizing the names of the months in English must be difficult for Japanese, but it's easy going the other way -- the months in Japanese are all just numbers followed by the kanji for month (e.g. ichi-gatsu 一月 is January, ni-gatsu 二月 is February, etc.). They get their revenge, though: although the days of the month in Japanese are expressed with numbers, just like in English, there are special names for the first ten days of the month, which must be memorized, always a chore for gaijin learning Japanese. The days of the week are interesting, too -- each is associated with a kanji that represents the original European origin. The days of the week are getsu-yobi (月曜日, lit. "moon day"), ka-yobi (火曜日, "fire day" since the first character for Mars is "fire"), sui-yobi (水曜日, "water day," from the Japanese name for the planet Mercury), moku-yobi (木曜日, "wood day," from the name for Jupiter), kin-yobi (金曜日, "gold day," from Venus), do-yobi (土曜日, "earth day," from Saturn), and nichi-yobi (日曜日, "sun day," from good old Sol).




Scenes from a Japanese convenience store. This is the famous aloe yogurt, yogurt made with the fully edible plant aloe. It's nice, not to sweet, and prevents dryness and cracking in the stomach lining.



Another fave of mine, Nata de Coco yogurt, made with bits of nata de coco, a firm geletin-like food from the Phillippines. It's so much fun to chew on the bits as you eat the yogurt.



Lest you think aloe is just a fluke, here's another company's brand of aloe yogurt.



Yogurt with...marshmallows? I thought the Japanese were supposed to eat healthy food?