Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Wacky Japanese holidays, gift-giving and Kobe beef receiving, and what's up with the word "gaijin"

Although the Japanese have a reputation for being diligent and hardworking, there are actually more legal holidays in Japan than there are in the U.S. -- fifteen, versus just ten in the States -- and unlike the period of high economic growth of the sixties and seventies, people actually take them off now. While some of these holidays are similar to special days in other countries -- for example, National Foundation Day, which commemorates the traditional founding of Japan in 660 B.C. -- most are culturally unique to Japan. Among these are Coming-of-Age Day, when 20-year-olds officially come of age in the eyes of society; Children's Day, a day for celebrating children; Marine Day, to celebrate the sea; and Respect for the Aged Day, when the country honors the 20% of Japanese who are 65 or older. It's popular for organizations to "brand" certain days, too, such as May 3rd, Trash Day, a day to think about environmental issues, set on this day because 5/3 sounds like gomi, meaning trash; August 2nd, Pantsu-no-hi, or Underwear Day, an important day for undergarment manufacturers here; Nov. 11, Pocky Day, since 11/11 looks like four Pocky sticks lined up; and the recently mentioned February 9th, Meat Day, since 2/9 sounds like niku meaning meat. Incidentally, today is Neko-no-Hi, or Cat Day, as 2/22 somehow sounds like nyan nyan nyan (a cat's meow) to Japanese ears.

Gift-giving in Japan is quite formal and complex. There are two gift-giving periods, Ochugen in July and Oseibo in December, when families will give gifts such as canned coffee, laundry soap or cooking oil to the people who help them in some way, such as teachers or others in the neighborhood. When you receive a gift, you're supposed to give a return gift, called okaeshi (oh-KAH-eh-she), worth about half the amount of the original gift. (Birthday and Christmas gifts are strangely exempt from this, perhaps because these customs were imported from the West.) There are times when a Japanese company gives cash "congraulations bonuses" (in Japanese, o-iwai kin) to employees for happy events like getting married or the birth of a child, and okaeshi gifts are also made in return. J-List's Jun (the guy who works hard to keep our J-Snack selection so well stocked) became a father last month, and his return gift to us was something very special: the famed Kobe beef, just about the most expensive steak you can buy. Coming from cows that get daily massages and are fed beer to bring out the famous marbling quality of the meat, it was certainly the most amazing steak I've ever tasted.

The word for foreigner in Japanese is gaijin (外人), written using the characters for "outside" and "person." While it simply refers to foreigners, the word is kind of harsh and can sound derogatory depending on how it's used. For this reason, it's common to hear the word gaikokujin (外国人) or "outside country person," a better term that sounds much softer to the ear. One thing about foreigners living in Japan: while they usually don't appreciate Japanese calling out to them by saying "Hey, gaijin!" they're more than likely to use the term amongst themselves openly without a second thought.

J-List strives to bring you thousands of fun and hard-to-find products direct from Japan, and we sell hundreds of snack and chocolate items, from the new Green Tea Pocky to delicious Melty Kiss and Japan-only Kit Kat varieties, with new and interesting snack items updated three times a week. Today we've posted an old favorite, Every Burger, which are chocolate hamburgers surrounded by cookie buns -- so fun to eat! By the way, all food items we sell are stamped with a "freshness date" and we unconditionally guarantee that everything we sell is within this date.

Getting ready to open the wagyu. It comes in a special box that looks like wood but is really styrafoam. Those Japanese are so talented.

Jahn! This meat was incredible to look at, marbeled with white throughout and very high quality. Of course, you have to like meat prepared this way -- this is a steak fit for a wealthy Japanese industrialist, not particularly someone who wants lean meat.

This meat comes with a certificate indicating where it was raised, what kind of Kobe beef it was, and amazingly, the name of the animal I was about to eat.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Building blocks of words in Japanese, on Japanese modesty, and

Studying a foreign language is fun because it helps you learn about your own language, too. I've always been interested in the idea of morphemes, which are the smallest units of meaning in a word, and how they work in other languages. A word like "unladylike" has three useful chunks of information, un + lady + like, while a word like "communism" consists of two morphemes, commune (a group of people sharing their possessions) + ism (indicating a doctrine or theory). Just as many of the words used in the West came from Latin or Greek, Japanese vocabulary are usually kanji-based. Indicating a nationality or a language is easy -- just add jin (人, meaning person; it rhymes with "seen") or go (語, language) to the country name. A word like "communism" is expressed by breaking down the original meaning, in this case kyousan (共産, produce together) and shugi (主義, main belief, which corresponds to the morpheme "ism" in English). All countries have kanji that represent them, allowing you to make some very efficient words, like Perry + come + sun (Japan) for "the coming of Admiral Perry to Japan" (ペリー来日) or sun + rice (America) + relationship for "Japan-American relations" (日米関係) Although learning how to read kanji is no picnic, it's nice that there are no exceptions with kanji-built words. Suffixes for nationality in English can be confusing -- is someone from Burma a Burminian or a Burmite or a Burmese? -- but in Japanese, you only have to remember that jin character.

Compliment any Japanese on how good their English is, or how pretty they look if female, and you may experience that famous Japanese modesty: the recipient of your praise will likely deny your kind words vehemently. This is because in Japan, modesty is considered a good trait to have, and someone who flaunts his or her talents openly rather than hiding them politely would be seen in a negative light. Sometimes Japanese modesty can be quite ridiculous: if you bake a cake for someone, you usually give it to them while saying something like "This probably doesn't taste good..." I've noticed that Japanese modesty stops short when it comes to money, however. I once caught a talk show which featured a big slope, and various famous guests would come, make some small talk with the host, then go sit somewhere on the slope to indicate how much money they a made annually. Poor swimsuit idol Yoko Kumada was stuck near the bottom of the hill, while famous actor and former baseball star Eiji Bando was happy to saunter to the top, indicating his considerable wealth.

It's still February, but signs of Spring are popping up everywhere. Suntory has brought out their new Spring-limited Sawayaka Harunama ("Refreshing Spring Draft Beer"), specially formulated to taste good while sitting under the cherry blossom trees enjoying the beauty of the sakura petals falling all around you. Along with School Sports Day in the Fall, Spring is one of the primary seasons for buying video cameras, and Panasonic is pushing their lineup of products to parents of first-graders who will be entering school -- who wouldn't want to record that event for posterity? This year's Panasonic commercial is really beautiful, filled with images of children running through dancing sakura trees while a loving mother records the scene. See it here (Flash required).

More pics from Tokyo. Although Akihabara is a great place to go for electronics, they have almost no good food places, and no Starbucks at all. So I chilled in a Mr. Dounut, whic is pronounced Mr. Dounuts in Japanese for phonetic reasons.

You can never tell if something is for real in Japan. Here's a little lion whose mane is made out of a dounut, called Pon De Lion. Is this a joke on Juan Ponce de León, the colonizer of Florida, or a weird accident?

The Japanese word for bread is "pan," since the Porguguest brought it to Japan many centuries ago. In case you don't know what you're looking at, it's Melon Bread and Curry Bread. Melon bread doens't contain melon, it's just called that because it looks like a honeydew melon, sort of. It's also said to look like brains.

This is what's known as a kanban musume or "signpost girl" because her cute face sells more melon bread. It certainly sold some to me. Man, I love living in Japan.