Friday, February 17, 2006

Thoughts on Tokyo, the truth behind internationalization, and the triumph of inefficiency

I went into Tokyo on business yesterday, and as is often the case, I was amazed that the city is able to function as well as it does with its massive daytime population of 14 million -- a whopping 5655 people per square kilometer. Just as New York is comprised of several boroughs, Tokyo is made up of various parts, including 23 wards (ku), 26 cities (shi), and even sections designated as towns and villages (determined by population size), in effect making the metropolitan area operate more as a prefecture than as a city. Although Tokyo has an extensive system of freeways and major roads, driving there is the most stressful thing you can imagine, and I nearly always take trains, since there's nothing more convenient. The end result of this is that I have no perception of the geographical layout of Tokyo at all, but only think of the city in terms of which train line will get me to Shinjuku or Akihabara. Yesterday I was delayed by the bane of Tokyo train riders, the jinshin jiko, which means "injury accident" but is a polite way of saying that someone decided to end it all by throwing themselves in front of an oncoming train.

One of the things any pop Japanoligist can tell you about are the Japanese traditions of tatemae and honne (TAH-tay-MAH-eh and HON-neh), two concepts which are woven into the fabric of Japan's society. Tatemae, meaning "facade," represents the the ideas expressed in public, or the way we pretend society is, while honne is the way we really feel, or the way the world really is. Ever since coming to Japan I've heard a lot about kokusai-ka, a word that means "internationalization" and which supposedly represents Japan's desire to open up to the rest of the world and experience other cultures and new ways of solving problems. Frankly, I've always felt that this was a prime example of tatemae in action -- something that sounds good in a newspaper article but is meaningless in practice -- since the average Japanese, just like the average American or Korean or Frenchman, has a natural tendency to believe that the way things are done in their country is intrinsically better than anywhere else. However, I was surprised to find a little honne after all, when my daughter told me the kinds of international foods they've been dishing up at lunchtime at her public elementary school: Korean bibinbap rice bowl, Indian kima curry with naan, Italian focaccio bread, French mille-feuille for dessert, and so on. The idea is to improve the kids' minds by exposing them to various foods from around the world, and I think it's a great one.

Sadly, one of the major economic themes of Japan today is the triumph of inefficiency. When you drive past road construction, there are sure to be several men whose job it is to stand by the road with orange flashlights, ostensibly directing traffic even though everyone ignores them. Then there are the ever-present "parking old men" who do nothing more than stand in parking lots and direct you to a parking spot that you could have easily found yourself. Japan is a very cash-centric country, and personal checks (or cheques, for our European readers -- internationalization!) don't exist here at all. When individuals or businesses need to send money to someone, they usually go to the bank and execute a manual bank transfer (furikomi), paying a $6 fee to the bank for this privilege. And just today I saw another classic example of inefficiency: people who are paid to sit by the side of the road and click a clicker as cars drive by, to count the numbers of cars using a given road at a set time. Japan is supposed to be a technically advanced country, so why don't they come up with a high-tech device that can do this?

Just a heads up: J-List stocks virtually every PC dating-sim game in English, including older classics like the Himeya games, Hobibox's Viper series and Love Love Show, and the collection of three classic games by G-Collections, DOR. Several games are close to selling out, so if you're a collector of Japan's unique H-games, you might consider picking them up before they go.

Pictures from my trip to Tokyo, hopefully with improved quality since I am using a camera now, not my phone. Thi sis the famous Yama-no-te loop line that goes around Tokyo.

Ad for Nova, the English school that promises you a "study abroad experience without leaving your local train station area."

Some parts of Tokyo are new and spiffy, like Shinjuku and Shibuya. Then there are the old places, which can't have changed that much in the past 50 years. Asakusa-bashi is one such place.

They've made a branch of the Yoyogi Animation School in Akihabra -- smart move.

Wanted!! Pinky Street...

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The mathematical aspects of Japanese grammar, Japan and its environment, and ways to fluster a Japanese person

A show I like a lot is NHK's Eigo de Shaberanaito ("I must say it in English"), which helps motivate Japanese learners of English by, say, showing actresses with no special language ability taking on difficult challenges like interviewing famous Hollywood stars who visit Japan. In last night's episode, a Japanese fan asked Patrick, the token gaijin-who-can-speak-Japanese- really-well you see on a lot of television shows, how he learned to speak the language so well. His answer was that, to him, Japanese was a very "formulaic" language, with a simple sentence structure that's straightforward and "markers" for the various parts of the sentence, such as the subject (wa, in Japanese は), the object (o, を), the predicate (ni, に), and so on. I agreed with this statement 100% -- the grammar of Japanese is almost mathematical in its directness, and from my very first year at SDSU I found it a pleasant challenge, even taking into account the parts of sentences that get omitted because everyone understands that information already. Something that helped me a lot in the beginning was memorizing a particular sentence then "swapping out" the subject, object, etc. with other words, until I had internalized it.

Japan is truly the land of contradictions, and sometimes it seems impossible to know the real Japan. Take the issue of the environment, for example. On the one hand, Japan is an ultra-industrialized country that has sacrificed a huge portion of its limited land mass to the twin Gods of Asphalt and Conrete, covering much of the country with roads and dams and Shinkansen tracks. An over-reliance on public works to stimulate the economy has led to a staggering amount of waste, with many projects of dubious benefit, such as mummifying the sides of mountains with concrete to guard against possible rockslides. When you point out that Japan has caused harm to its environment, the argument is made that the country's large population -- 1/2 that of the U.S., crammed into 1/25 the space, or even less if you take away all the uninhabitable mountain areas -- makes it impossible for Japan to be as concerned with environmental issues as the U.S. or Europe, and the inevitable Japanese mantra shigata ga nai (it can't be helped) is trotted out. And yet, there are many ways the Japanese show real vision when it comes to the environment. Gomi (garbage) is always separated into "burnable" and "non-burnable," with the former incinerated in high-tech facilities that burn the trash and trap most of the harmful gases that result -- and heat the local town's swimming pool at the same time. Cars are taxed annually on the sizes of their engines, with a gas-guzzling Toyota Crown owner paying around $800 per year while owners of fuel efficient small cars or hybrids pay a mere $30. Every few days a guy drives around our neighborhood calling for old newspapers to recycle, which he'll trade rolls of new toilet paper for. And when you go to the store to buy more Charmy Green dishwashing liquid, you have the choice between buying a regular bottle or a refill pack that costs slightly less and doesn't add to the gomi problem.

Want to know how to fluster a Japanese person? Ask them pronounce difficult English words, such as the word "jewelry," which twists L and R sounds in unnatural ways. Other words the J-List staff reports as being difficult are "McDonald's" (which takes six syllables to say in Japanese, Makudonarudo), "strawberry daiquiri" and that old standby, "election." There are two words for love in Japanese, too, and if you want to have some fun ask your Japanese friends what the difference between them is -- they'll stumble as they try to come up with a way to explain the difference. The two words are koi (恋, which usually describes romantic love) and ai (愛, a higher kind of love that is used for family or anyone who's very dear to you, or the steady, slow-burning love of marriage). Incidentally, these two words are combined into a compound word to make a general word for love, which is ren'ai (恋愛).

The "top 20" links on the main J-List and pages are a good way to browse the most popular products we sell, allowing you to quickly see what other manga, DVD, magazine, photobook, toy, Japanese study and other items other J-List customers are buying that week. Now we've updated our scripts so that you get to see the top 50 products in each category, a great way to see the most popular products neatly organized for you. We also recommend hitting the "3 days update" link which makes it easy to browse items updated in the last 3 days only, so you can see what's new and updated at J-List!

I bought a new camera, the very nice Canon Ixy LI3 and the smallest one they make (almost the smallest camera sold in Japan). This camera purchase came about after I finally realized I hate my phone's camera, which had been significantly downgraded from the previous model, and I was tired of taking blurred photos with it. So readers who have requested that I post more pics, hopefully you will get more pics.

Wow, Mac technologies taking up two of the three icons. That's not bad. As a long time Mac user, it's not always been easy to take stupid manufacturers who take a generic product like an EIDE hard drive and then mark that it's only compatible with Windows. Come on, guys.

Home made Valentine's Day cake for me, yum! It's nice having an appreciative wife and daughter in the home.

Also, some really yummy homemade chocolates.

This is Hayami Mokomichi, pretty much the #1 heartthrob in Japan right now, something that is bound to happen if your name is weird like "Mokomichi." He adorns my wife's wall.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Valentine's Day and Chocolate in Japan, learning about Japan through "fighting five team" shows, and Japanese linguistic poverty

Tomorrow is Valentine's Day, and all throughout Japan men are looking forward to receiving the gift of chocolate from females around them, in keeping with the custom here. There are two kinds of chocolate a man can receive, the first of which is giri choco or "obligation chocolate." which female coworkers might give to males they work with because they feel it's expected of them. Then there's the stuff that we all really want to get, honmei choco or "true heart chocolate," hand-made chocolates, cakes or other treats from our wives, daughters or girlfriends which show their love and appreciation for us. Of course, when you are given a gift in Japan you always have to give something back (this is called o-kaeshi), and so Japan's marketers have created White Day on March 14, a day when men who received chocolate must give something back (often white chocolate or, if she's okay with it, sexy underwear).

There are many ways to approach an understanding of Japan -- through its anime, or JPOP music, or perhaps through Japanese television dramas, which are quite interesting. Another way you might enter into an exploration of Japan's pop culture is through the Super Sentai TV show series, the "fighting five team" shows in which color-coded heroes do battle with evil minions, invariably combining into a giant robot to finish off the giant monster-of- the-week in a big explosion at the end. Ever since creating Secret Sentai Goranger three decades ago, Toei has created a new series every year, making adjustments to the stories and characters along the way -- changing them to ninja or galactic police officers, for example. Since most every Japanese person watched these shows when they were small, you can ask them which "sentai generation" they belonged to. J-List's Daisuke and Tomo loved Electronic Team Denjiman (1980), while my wife was there for the original Goranger series (1975). I got to experience these shows alongside my son as he was growing up, too. He loved Emergency Rescue Team GoGo-V (1999) more than anything else, and it was a real eye-opening experience for him when we got a tape of Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue (the U.S. version of the same series) and got to see the fire engine that transformed into a robot to do that corny "ladder punch" in English. I'll never forget the last episode of Time Ranger, when the characters took their Time Robo back in "time" to visit all the past five-team shows. The Super Sentai series has links to other shows, of course, such as the venerable Kamen Rider (Masked Rider) and anime classics like Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and Voltron.

One of the curses of the Japanese is their unique kana-based phonetic system that breaks every sound down into consonant+vowel or vowel-only syllables, which leads to Japanese being very phonetically impoverished and is the reason why Japanese often have thick accents when speaking English. One of the simplest words to you or I is probably the word the, yet the closest you can come to this pronunciation in the katakana writing system is za -- the dental fricative sound is quite alien to the Japanese vocal system. The Japanese Ministry of Education has recently started teaching English in elementary schools, but since there aren't enough native English teachers in Japan, the special classes are being taught by my daughter's normal homeroom teacher. The kids had to learn to sing Puff the Magic Dragon by writing katakana characters over the English lyrics, which came out as Pafu, za majikku doragon, livedo by za shee... Fortunately, my bilingual daughter was there to help them with the pronunciation, and she was a big hit.

J-List carries the amazing DVDs of Yulia Nova, an amazing Russian model who was discovered by Japanese photographer Satoshi Kizu and became a huge success here in Japan, as well as across the Internet, where her amazing body and matching charm made her a hit on the Internet. J-List carries all of Yulia Nova's DVD releases, and just for you, we've lowered the price of the first three DVDs to just $19.95 each, making this a great chance for you to pick up her first three discs and experience her loveliness.