Friday, October 28, 2005

On stereotypes, how and why words jump from one language to another, and trying to recall the term "gynecologist"

Stereotypes are really not good, since they cause us to make assumptions about people from other countries before we've gotten to know them. When I taught English as a Second Language, I used to do a lot of part-time work, going to people's homes to teach their kids once a week, and I was able to meet a lot of people this way. One family I taught seemed to be a pretty average Japanese family on the surface: bustling mother overly concerned about her kids' education; bright daughter; younger son who loved Pokemon; and a salaryman father who often worked late. The father surprised me one day by showing me pictures of his journey from Vladivostok to Moscow on the Siberian Railroad, which had been a lifelong dream of his, and I was immediately sorry I'd assumed he was such an average guy. On the other hand, sometimes stereotypes can be eerily accurate. When I went to Germany I asked a man to take my picture, and when he couldn't work my camera, he let out a frustrated Ach! just like a parody of a monacled villain from a 1960s spy movie. In Italy, the gentle, matronly mother of a friend of mine punctuated every third sentence with Mama mia! Japanese are famous for saying ah, so (short for ah, so desu ka? or "oh, is that so?"), and they really do say it a lot. I'm always embarrassed when I inadvertently say this in Japanese when my American family is nearby, snickering.

It's common for words to jump from one language to another, and the mechanism of how this works is quite interesting to me. The Japanese have imported many words from other languages, especially technical terms (from English) or medical terms (often from German), and some old reliable Japanese words like tempura are actually foreign in origin (from the Portuguese, in this case). People seem to reach for foreign words when a new concept comes along that current terms don't cover well; for example, the English word address (adoresu) is used to describe an email address, since the Japanese term (jusho) only refers to an actual home address. Sometimes, there seems to be an emotional element in using a term from another language, which provides a certain je ne sais quoi. For example, only the Spanish term aficionado could adequately describe Hemmingway's love of bullfighting, and only the Japanese word otaku can cover the depth of the current generation's fascination with Japanese pop culture. It's common for the meanings of words to shift slightly when imported into a new language, too. For example, English speakers use the word manga to refer to printed comics, but in Japanese the word covers animation you watch on TV as well; the English word "propose" is only used for marriage proposals in Japanese, a potentially dangerous situation for Japanese women who might suddenly blush when you start your next business presentation; and the other day I borrowed my wife's Bvlgari "body shampoo" and, reading the bottle, noticed that the French word for shower is douche, which opens up a whole world of potential linguistic confusion.

One of my favorites from the "YBIJTLW" list: "You've been in Japan too long when it takes you several seconds of deep thought to recall the first name of the President of the United States." It's true -- you'd be surprised what living in a foreign country can do to your ability to recall seldom-used information, or even remember certain English vocabulary words. Try going years without ever hearing or uttering difficult words, like "gynecologist" or "irreplaceable" -- they can be quite difficult to dredge up from the depths of your memory, even if English is your native language. It's a strange feeling, not being able to recall a word you know you should know -- you stand there with a dumb look on your face while your brain googles your hippocampus, trying to find the term. It's especially bad for English teachers in Japan, because you can go for months without hearing any English except the simplified utterances of your students, which invariably begins to affect your language. You find yourself speaking too slowly, pronouncing words too carefully (like clearly annunciating the t in party instead of making it sound like a d), and avoiding some words you know listeners won't be able to understand. Over time, this can change your English, although never fear, it's only temporary.

At J-List, we love to bring cool new things from Japan to you. Today, we're posting some really excellent items to our "traditional" section: famous Kutani Ware teacups (yunomi) and rice bowls (chawan) from Japan, from the Kutani region of Japan, famous for high-quality pottery since 1655. The new items we've got in stock will really allow you to touch and feel Japan in a totally new way. See the items now!

Next, J-List makes dozens of great anime, manga, fashion, toy, sexy idol and other magazines available to you through our revolving magazine subscription service. The magazines J-List offers are colorful, filled with beautiful pictures, and are great for people not lucky enough to live here -- and you can always cancel a subscription at any time, since they're month-to-month revolving subscriptions. Today we're adding two new subscription items for car enthusiasts: Car and Driver Japan, a great all-purpose magazine for fans of Japanese "car life"; and Car Goods Press, a special version of Goods Press that features tons of information on accessories and interior customization options for your wheels.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Japanese and movies, learning Japanese through songs, and the famous food of Kyoto

The Japanese love movies, and watch a lot of them. Happily for gaijin like myself, they usually prefer watching U.S. movies in English with Japanese subtitles, rather than dubbed into Japanese -- quite different from countries like China, where all films are shown dubbed in the local language. Hollywood films are a staple of Japanese theatres, as you might expect, but except for big-budget productions that aim for global releases, movies often open in Japan several months after their debut in the U.S. -- for example, the Brothers Grim is just opening this week, no doubt repositioned as a Halloween film for the local market. There are always several Japanese films showing in our local theatre, such as the live-action adaption of Nana, a popular shoujo manga about two very different girls who share the same name, and the latest installment of the Masked Rider (Kamen Rider) franchise for the kids. Movies tied to anime are popular, such as the live-action version of Touch and the upcoming second Zeta Gundam movie (I've got to catch both of those). Japan's fascination with Korean film continues, with several films showing right now, including April Snow, which seems calculated to recapture the popularity of Winter Sonata. The trend towards foreign films seems to be widening -- in addition to one film in Cantonese, our local theatre is showing Heinahattu ja Vilttitossu, a film from Finland.

Succeeding at studying a language takes hard work, and one bit of advice I often offer to prospective students is, "find what floats your boat," i.e., try to come up with interests that will help move your study efforts forward a little each day. I worked hard to find Japan-related interests, including reading manga in Japanese, which gave me a constant stream of vocabulary words to absorb. Karaoke was another way to tackle the language -- it's always fun when a gaijin gets up to belt out a song in Japanese, and this feedback gave me a reason to learn more. If you're interested in learning Japanese through songs, I've chosen three excellent classics you might consider: Kampai (an emotional tear-jerker sung at weddings); Namida Sousou (a traditional Okinawan song turned into a pop hit); and the excellent Tsunami, which J-List's own Tomo is pretty good at belting out. See the songs and lyrics here.


If you ever make it to Kyoto, I hope you'll try kaiseki ryori, a memorable Japanese dining experience in which a great deal of care is taken with the presentation of the food, from the shape and color and texture to the elegant dishes everything is served on. The meal is very seasonal, and what you're served will depend on what time of year it is -- in the fall your meal with have a momiji (Japanese maple) motif, while sakura petals will adorn your food in the spring. Kaiseki meals are served in courses, similar to fine French dining, and includes sashimi, tempura, grilled fish, rice, and various other foods. To be honest, it's not uncommon to have no idea what you're putting in your mouth when you eat kaiseki, but don't worry, everything is good.

J-List carries Comic AG, an excellent magazine that brings you the best English-translated H manga ever seen outside of Japan. The publisher really has a passion for manga, and he features many of the most popular artists on J-List, faithfully translated into English. Best of all, he's recently accelerated his publishing schedule, with two issues coming out each month. We want to make it easier for fans to buy backissues of AG before they sell out, so we've created the new "AGSET" which lets you buy sets of 5 issues for a special discount. You can also get a subscription, and we'll send you each issue as they come in.

Monday, October 24, 2005

All about Commodore Perry, more on Japan's culture of "sho ga nai" and our "second house"

Hello again from Japan, the home of "rinse in shampoo" (which means shampoo that contains cream rinse in it).

One of the most dramatic events in Japanese history was the coming of Commodore Matthew Perry and his "Black Ships," who visited Japan in 1852 to demand that the country trade with the U.S. or face war. Perry and his ships forced the Tokugawa Shogun to open the country to the rest of the world, and forever burned themselves into the minds of the Japanese at the same time. Seeing how weak it was against foreign powers like the U.S. and Britain, the military government began a program of modernization with Western help, which caused the domains of Satsuma, Choshu and Tosa (now Kagoshima, Yamaguchi and Kochi Prefectures) to rebel. Under the famous slogan sonno joi or "Respect the Emperor and Expel the Foreign Barbarians" (see our line of T-shirts and hoodies with this slogan on them), they defeated the shogun and created a new government around the Meiji Emperor, in effect restoring the power of the Emperor, who had been a figurehead throughout most of Japan's history. It didn't take long for the new government to realize that, oopsie, it needed help from foreign powers too, if it wanted to modernize Japan and become a strong nation that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the world.

All countries have what the Japanese call kokuminsei, sort of a national personality or set of beliefs and features seemingly shared by all members of that country, which could be thought of as the essence of what is is to be American, Japanese, etc. Whether you're from Germany, Canada, or South Korea, there's a lot that connects to you everyone else from the same place. One facet of the kokuminsei of Japanese people is their ability to endure unpleasantness by using the magic words "it can't be helped" (shikata ga nai, or more commonly, sho ga nai), not unlike the French c'est la vie or the Borg's "resistence is futile." On the one hand, shikata ga nai is a mechanism that makes society operate more smoothly, without getting snagged on every little problem or injustice, and Japan's famous lack of litigious culture is probably directly related to this mind-set. On the other hand, there are many problems with contemporary society that could be handled if they were met head-on.

One of our favorite places in Japan is Karuizawa, a resort town about two hours up the freeway from Tokyo that's quite popular -- so popular, in fact, that you have to sit in a 5-hour traffic jam to get there during the Golden Week holidays. The town features shaded streets that are great for bicycling, lots of nice restaurants and little shops, and my wife's favorite place, an American- style shopping mall with dozens of outlet stores. Well-heeled Tokyo-ites might purchase a bessou (meaning "second home") in Karuizawa and spend their weekends up there, but employees of companies can often enjoy these benefits too, as it's quite common for Japanese companies to maintain facilities that employees are free to use whenever they like. J-List rents a small "resort mansion" (a Japanese-English word meaning a glofied apartment) for our employees with a real hot springs bath, a gym, and plenty of fun mountain activities -- it's a nice place to get away from it all. On our way back from the mountains yesterday, we happened to see one of IBM Japan's bessou for its employees here. I wonder if IBM does this in the U.S.?

J-List strives to bring you an authentic piece of Japan every day, and we carry many wonderful traditional items, from cotton yukata to bento boxes to cool traditional footwear and more. Something we've always wanted to sell are the traditional Japanese wood dolls called kokeshi, which are beautiful hand-painted dolls that are great for collecting and displaying, and now we've gotten some of these great traditional items on the site for you!

Incredibly, we've got another volley of excellent 2006 calendars for you, including artist Haruyo Morita, Famous Castles of Japan, Negima, lovely actress Misaki Itoh, and many more! We also have the Perfect Diary daily planners, which are excellent daily diaries that make it easy to keep track of everything you need to do over the whole year, while enjoying some beautiful photos as the year slides by.



Our "resort mansion" in all its glory.



The mountains are extra beautiful in the fall, when koyo season comes. Let's come to the mountains in koyo! Koyo! (this is a bad Japanese joke, since koyo can also mean "let's come")



Karuizawa is right at the foot of Mt. Asama, as in, the volcanoe that erupted last year. Here it can be seen practicing the Japanese tradition of "smokin' clean."



Karuizawa has lots of interesting shops and other stuff to check out. Here is a U.S. military surplus store selling all kinds of stuff, including Zippos from the Vietnam War era.