Friday, February 03, 2006

Earthquakes and Japan's islands, a parable about the sexes in Japan, and an update on the Imperial Family's problems

Japan is an atoll of more than 3000 large and small islands, with the major ones being the main island of Honshu (HONE-shu, "main province"); the northernmost island of Hokkaido (ho-KAI-doh, "north sea road"); southern Kyushu (KYU-shu, "nine provinces," since there used to be nine of them in the old days); and tiny Shikoku (shi-KOH-koo, "four countries," since there were, and still are, four prefectures there). Japan was formed by volcanic activity, and as such, it's home to more than a few earthquakes -- in fact, we've managed to feel about five small quakes today while working. Although the land mass of Japan is small -- equal to the state of Nebraska -- it's spread out over a wide area, and if you lay Japan over a map of the USA, it easily stretches from sea to shining sea. Whenever there's a big quake somewhere in Japan, we know we'll get emails from family members asking if we're okay, even though the shaking is often hundreds of miles away from us.

I've written before about how Japan is a very different place from the U.S. or Europe when it comes to the relationship between men and women. On the one hand, Japan is a male-centric society in which it is joshiki (accepted common sense) that the husband be the "big, black pillar" at the center of the household, and women are more often than not happy with this arrangement. When the famous blue pill for men came along, it was approved for sale in Japan in record time by Japan's male politicians, while women had to wait 30 years to for the Pill to be legalized here. On the other hand, it's the women in Japanese families who control the household finances and make sure the various goals of the family are managed properly, and the image of a salaryman husband buttering up his wife for a little more allowance this month is not uncommon at all. My Japanese mother-in-law gave me her own Buddhist-tinged philosophy once, so I'll pass it along to you here. A woman is the ground, she told me, and a man is the seed planted in the ground. If the ground is firm and strong, the tree will grow tall and provide cover for the ground. Since everything eventually falls on the ground (the rain, the various troubles that happen to us all in life), there's a fundamental difference between men and women that can never be reconciled, only accepted. It's a little "zen" for some people, but it was an interesting way of looking at the issue, I thought.

In other news, Japan is in the middle of another debate about the sexes that will determine the future direction of the Imperial Family. The current Emperor is Akihito, known in Japan as the Heisei Emperor since this is his era according to the Japanese way of counting years. His son is Prince Naruhito, and he and his Oxford-educated wife Masako (the "Princess Di" of Japan, if you will) have a daughter, Aiko-sama, whose name happens to translate as "love child." Because Naruhito's younger brother Prince Akishino has also fathered two daughters, there are no male heirs to continue the line of the Emperors, which goes back through 125 rulers to the year 660 B.C., according to legend. Prime Minister Koizumi supports the idea of allowing Aiko to become Empress, since there is precedent for this in Japan's history. Predictably, conservative politicians are against the idea, with one argument being that if Aiko married someone from outside the Imperial Family, the male Y chromosome from the current line would be forever lost, replaced by the Y chromosome of whoever she marries. I hope they find a good solution to the problem.

RSS, if you don't know, is a very convenient way to read news and other posts on the Internet, from blogs to mainstream news sources. There are many stand-alone RSS readers for all computer platforms, or you can try an online news aggregator like Newsgator (the one I like, since I can read blogs with my phone). If you want to follow J-List's updates and new product posts with an RSS reader, we've posted links to feeds on the left side of the J-List and JBOX.com sites.

Remember that J-List carries a great for fans of JPOP, the iTunes Japan Music Cards, which are the only way to buy music from the iTMS unless you happen to have a credit card registered inside Japan. Looking for the Doraemon theme song? Want to browse the latest singles by Every Little Thing? Or browse the Japan Hip Hop scene for songs you like the sound of? It's all very easy to do from any Mac or PC running iTunes. The cards come in 2500, 5000 and 10,000 yen denominations, and are super-easy to use -- just log out of your current iTunes account, select the Japan store, click the link to enter an iTMS card number, and you can set up a new account for your Japanese music. You don't even have to muck with Japanese characters in the iTunes application, since it will work in whatever language you have it set to.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

An easy Japanese pronunciation guide, fun with the word "origami" and glottal stops and you

I clearly remember an episode back in the third grade. I had checked a book called Flying Origami by Eiji Nakamura out from the library. The book was great, filled with really cool Japanese paper airplanes to make, but there was just one problem -- I had no idea how to pronounce the word origami, which was just too difficult for my nine-year-old brain to handle. Little did I know I'd end up living in Origami Central one day, which goes to show that you never know where your life will take you. Anyway, I've decided to present a "quickie pronunciation guide" for Japanese, in case it will help anyone.

First, understand that Japanese is a syllabic language, meaning that sounds always come in consonant + vowel syllable pairs (e.g. ka, ki, ku, ke, or ko, never just a "k" sound by itself), or as a single vowel syllable. The exception is the letter "n," the only consonant that can appear by itself, without which we wouldn't have the word ramen (and that would be a travesty). Vowels are easy as pie in Japanese -- there are only five, identical to the ones in Spanish. They are:

A - "ah" rhyming with "fall"
I - "ee" rhyming with "feel"
U - "oo" rhyming with "fool"
E - "eh" rhyming with "let"
O - "oh" rhyming with "go"

When you see a word like origami, just break it into syllable-sized chunks, pronouncing all the letters and squeezing it into the "Japanese phoenetic grid": oh-ree-GAH-mee. There are no diphthongs in Japanese -- a vowel all by itself is treated as a syllable separate from what it's next to, so a name like Miura would be three syllables, mee-OO-ra. When you see a Japanese name or word, try not to let the pronunciation rules of English get in your way. We had a friend named Tomoe (toh-moh-EH), but English-speakers always called her "Tomo," thinking that the "silent e" on the end of her name should be ignored. Other things to keep in mind: a g sound like ge or "gi" is always hard (as in go), never soft (as in giraffe), hence the third sound in Evangelion is indeed a hard "g," in case you were wondering. The sound u is always oo, never "you." And the ra-ri-ru-re-ro sounds are closer to an "L" sound than "R" in English, hence the word "ramen" is about 80% of the way to "lamen," pronunciation-wise. Of course, the best way to learn to pronounce Japanese is while learning the hiragana and katakana writing systems. Remember that J-List has many cool products to help you start studying the language, if you want to give it a try.

A somewhat unique aspect of Japanese is the "small tsu" (小さい「つ」) a special kana character the indicates a brief pause between syllables, not unlike the short stop you can hear when saying words like "button" or "kitten." Linguistically it's called a glottal stop, and while many languages have them, you usually don't have a way to express them in writing. Usually expressed in the Roman alphabet with double consonants, some words that have this brief pause include gakkou (gah-[small pause]-KOH, school), nattou (nah-[small pause]-TOH, fermented soybeans) and matcha (mat-[small pause]-CHA, green tea powder).

The Japanese love onomatopoeia, and there are many odd sound words used in Japan. One of the strangest is mokkori (there's that "small tsu" again), which is the sound of something rising suddenly (e.g. the sound of a tent being pitched), a word made famous among anime fans by the classic City Hunter anime series of the 1980s. This wacky linguistic concept is embodied in here, a loveable character on our latest T-shirt. This upstanding little guy is a mushroom (what did you think he was?) who is a real straight-shooter. One of our wackiest Japanese T-shirts ever, it's guaranteed to get you lots of attention from cute Japanese coeds who see you walking across campus.

At J-List, we sell lots of DVDs, including many high-end indies JAV or anime titles from Japan, such as the excellent films of Hayao Miyazaki, which are zoned for region 2 (Japan and Europe). For customers who want to enjoy DVDs from all parts of the world including Japan, we humbly recommend the three region-free DVD players we sell, which are fully compatible with North American television systems and have full 1-year warranties. We've discovered a cool new feature in the AMW M-280, the portable 7" DVD player we sell for just $148. In addition to its many innovative features, this player will play MP3 music burned onto a DVD-R disc, allowing you to burn 4+ GB worth of tunes anywhere you want to play them (in your car, at home, etc.). Really cool!