Friday, January 27, 2006

Japan and its paper doors, young people who imitate James Dean, and bilingualism tricks with kids

Japan's come a long way from the classic image of "paper houses," but paper is still commonly used in modern Japanese homes. Shoji are sliding wooden doors with paper glued to them, allowing you to separate rooms and provide privacy and insulation. The doors slide sideways, so they don't take up any room in cramped houses, and they bring a healthy Japanese touch to any room, even western-style ones. Shoji have a tendency to turn yellow when they get old, so every few years you should replace the paper. Tearing the paper off the doors is just about the funniest thing in the world, and our kids are all too happy to help us do this when called upon. The shoji paper market is quite large, with many different companies competing to sell you the best paper for your shoji doors. Variations include shoji that are hard to tear (they've got cotton fibers in them), shoji you can hang by just running an iron over the paper, and shoji with various interesting patterns woven into the paper.

When I first got to Japan, I had an interesting experience: while sampling the local "Kentucky" I saw two high school girls standing around smoking and trying to look tough. They noticed me, and one boasted, "We are furyo!" I didn't know the word at the time, but the joy of kanji is that you can often understand concepts by working out what the characters would mean when put together. Fu is "not" and ryo is "good," and the combination (pronounced foo-RYOH, in kanji, 不良) means "bad" in a juvenile delinquint sort of way. From the rockabilly boom of the last decade to the more ominous boso-zoku street gangs who drive down the street on motorcycles modified to be extra loud and annoying, a lot of Japanese young people seem to be dedicated to this James Dean-esque idea of acting tough, of rebelling against mainstream Japanese society by smoking, cutting school uniform skirts very high, and (gasp!) dying their hair brown. Another word for these mostly-harmless street punk types is yankii (YAHN-kee), which is often thought to be related to the word "yankee" (because of their "American" colored hair), but it actually comes from a word in Osaka dialect. Whenever there's a Japanese festival you'll see these tough-looking kids out in force, standing around in their funny baggy clothes and looking vaguely scary. I used to make a point of approaching them and starting improptu English conversation classes with them, since their shy reactions when asked to speak English were priceless.

It's funny, the way children pick up language. As my kids were growing up, I spoke English to them, although they'd usually speak Japanese back to me despite my efforts to pretend I didn't understand. When we'd go to the U.S., my kids would get a real dose of English from the other family members, and (being kids) would double their vocabularies every day. One day when my son was about four, I asked him, "Would you mind if I went to dinner with your Mom tonight?" I intentionally used a phrase using "mind," which is the bane of Japanese people since you have to answer "no" if you mean "yes" and vice-versa, to see if he understood the question. To my surprise, he knew about this and answered me correctly ("No, I don't mind, you can go"). Somehow the kid had internalized a difficult grammatical structure that still torments his mother from time to time.

We've got a new treat for people who'd like to learn how to draw anime or manga-style art: the here book, a really well-done book with lots of articles on how to improve your art, use tools like Photoshop to color, and really build your own style as an artist. We've got it on the site as a downloadable item -- it's really great!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The buzz around Horie's arrest, Horie as a "standing nail," and info on Japanese names

Japan is all abuzz about the arrest of entrepreneur Takafumi Horie and his staff on investor fraud charges. A highly visible public figure, Horie (pronounced ho-ree-EH) is the Michael Dell-esque Japanese businessman who dropped out of the prestigious Tokyo University to start a website-creation company that would grow into Livedoor, a sprawling Yahoo clone with more than 50 businesses. In open emulation of American business practices, Horie grew his empire by acquiring other companies, and even launched an almost unheard-of hostile takeover bid for control of Fuji TV. Clearly a member of Donald Trump's "brand yourself and toot your horn" business philosophy, he was a regular fixture on television, and wrote books that were very influential with the younger generation.

A core concept that any pop Japanologist needs to know is the often-quoted- by-gaijin-who-are-experts-on-Japan phrase deru kui wa utareru (DE-ru KOO-ee wa oo-TAH-reh-ru), which translates as "the standing nail is driven." This describes the tendency of Japanese society to react unfavorably to those who don't conform as they should, and force them back in line -- individuals who stick out too far are "hammered down" and put in their place. The term certainly applies to Horie, who would meet high-ranking Sony executives while wearing jeans and T-shirt and who openly showed his lack of respect for established "old Japan" media companies. Horie-shacho was arrested under suspicion of various degrees of book-cooking, including announcing the purchase of companies whose shares he'd already bought secretly, to profit when the stocks then rose in value. While certainly no Enron-grade scandal, it's enough for Japan's Big Media to give him the smack-down they've been saving for him for some time. Unfortunately the scandal has caused a big drop in the market here (which has been termed "Livedoor Shock").

You may be familiar with the fact that, in Japan, family names are used before first names -- therefore the famous Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is known as Kurosawa Akira here. It can get confusing when you're switching from English to Japanese and back again, and once you get used to names being said one way, it feels very odd to go and reverse the order. The whole name order thing is all made even more confusing because of the fact that Westerners don't usually get their names reversed, so that I am Peter Payne even in Japanese (not Payne Peter). Even some Japanese use the English order for names, if they want to go out of their way to emulate stars in the West and sound kakko ii (cool): there's an action star in Japan who grew up in the U.S., and he goes by the name of Kane Kosugi just to sound like a gaijin.

Some bugs crept into our RSS feed, which allows you to track the newest products on J-List or using any RSS-reading application. We've gotten the problem fixed though, and both feeds are back up. The link for the feeds can be found along the left side of our website main page.