Friday, March 24, 2006

Funny English used in Japan, Japanese subject particles, and understanding culture through shoes

Perhaps more than any other people, the Japanese import words from other languages for their daily use, nearly always taking them from English. But after they've changed the words to conform to their unique sensibilities, what's left isn't always English that you or I could identify. First of all, long English words can be unwieldy in katakana, so they're often shortened to four syllables that encapsulate the core meaning, which is where words like risutora (corporate restructure, i.e. layoffs), sekuhara (sexual harassment in the workplace) and ganpura (Gundam plastic models) come from. Then there are words that the Japanese create because they don't know how silly they can sound to naive speakers. Some of these words include "fancy shop" (a store that sells cute character goods like Hello Kitty); "guts pose" (the manly pose an athlete might make); "car navi" (a GPS system for your car); "charm point" (a person's positive features); and "skinship" (the good skin-on-skin feeling of a father holding his baby in the bath). So when you come to Japan, you need to do more than learn Japanese -- you may need to learn some English, too.

Part of the reason I enjoyed learning Japanese in college is that the grammar and structure are so very different from English -- there was less potential for confusion than if I'd studied, say, French (or at least it seemed that way to me at the time). The word order of Japanese is subject-object-verb, compared with the subject-verb-object in English, which took some getting used to. Something that seems unique to the Japanese language is the existence of grammatical "particles" or verbal markers for parts of sentences, such as the object, conveniently o (as in sushi o taberu, to eat sushi); no, a marker for showing ownership or association (Keiko no okaasan, Keiko's mother); and ni, a particle showing direction (anata ni ageru, I will give it to you). Two of the more troublesome grammatical elements for students are wa and ga, which mark the topic and subject of a sentence, respectively, and which many students never seem to quite figure out on a conscious level -- in fact, I am one of them, even though I'm fluent in the langauge. Although the two are often interchangeable, wa is the wider subject of the sentence (often omitted), and ga acts like a "second subject" or object -- it's easy to think too much about it. A sentence that uses both would be watashi wa sushi ga suki desu, literally "As for me, I like sushi." Japanese people seldom know anything about their own grammar so if you want to confuse one, ask them to explain the difference between wa and ga. (Oh and by the way, this is a different wa than the wa (和) meaning harmony.)

One of the rules of Japanese cleanliness is that anything related to feet or shoes is kitanai (dirty, unclean), and shoes are always left at a special recessed area near the front door called the genkan. The custom of putting shoes near the front door can lead to some interesting social interaction that we couldn't conceive of in the States. For example, a genkan full of shoes is an immediate signal that a party is going on, and if a girlfriend drops by her boyfriend's apartment and sees a strange set of woman's shows there, she knows without going inside that he's fooling around. In Doushin - Same Heart, a dating-sim game that will be released in English soon, there's a sub-plot where one of the characters sees her sister's shoes in the genkan despite the fact that the lights in the house are off -- she immediately knows that her sister must be up in her room, and that something must be wrong.

Some shots of coming back from Karuizawa a couple weeks ago. My friend is into touring around Japan on his bike, therefore he has a copy of Touring Mapple. Incidentally, you've been in Japan too long when you can hear a word like "mapple" and not break out into hives.

One of the long-term problems about living in Japan is learning enough kanji to say, tour around the countyside with a map only in Japanese, becuase no English or bilingual map would be reliable enough. The solution is to just learn to read it all.

The snow was largely melted when we were up there two weeks ago. I'm sure it will all be gone this weekend. That's Mt. Asama by the way, the volcanoe that erupted lasat year.

Having some beer? Nothing goes better than peanuts & rice crackers and French Toast sticks.

Random shot of a poem by Mitsuo Aida. It says, "Happiness is always decided in your own heart." I really respect the work of Aida-san, who is one of the most famous calligraphers of postwar Japan and has done great things with using characters as poetic design elements.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A great day for Japanese baseball, all about the Cherry Blossom, and March construction season

Japan is ecstatic over its 10-6 win over Cuba, which allowed the country to clench the first-ever World Baseball Classic championship at Petco Stadium in my own home town of San Diego. All through the country Japanese stopped what they were doing to watch the game, and in Tokyo's Akihabara electronics district, all display TVs were tuned to watch while hundreds gathered to cheer. The victory was celebrated in all corners of the country, and the fervor got so heated there were some injuries among people lining up to buy copies of the newspaper proclaiming Japan's win. Watching it all on the news, I remember thinking that Japan needs more of this kind of positive national feedback to stay healthy as a people. Sometimes I think that Japan is too reserved, and when I look at my wife and her mother -- who have never shared an emotional embrace, even after my wife came back from years of studying in the U.S., since it's just not done here -- it seems to me that Japan needs more positive ways to show their emotions. Anyway, congratulations to the Japan team!

The national flower of Japan is the chrysanthemum, but anyone visiting the country could be forgiven for assuming that it was the cherry blossom, or sakura. At the beginning of spring each year the sakura bloom beautifully throughout Japan, and during that time, tens of thousands of people will descend on parks with sakura trees to engage in hanami, or flower viewing, basically an excuse to spread out a blanket with some friends and get drunk while sakura petals fall all around you. During this "season of the sakura," the Japanese news features daily "sakura reports," letting cherry blossom enthusiasts know the current condition of flowers in various parts of the country as the trees bloom from south to north. It all comes to a head as the flowers reach mankai, becoming fully opened and at their most beautiful. Yesterday marked the official opening of the first sakura in Tokyo, coming a full week earlier than most years. Flower viewing has been popular for centuries, beginning with nobles in the Nara period (710-784) and catching on with commoners in the subsequent centuries.

Today I had to drive across town, and it took me about an hour to get there due to all the traffic. It wasn't because of an accident, but instead a normal phenomenon found in Japan this month: the end-of-year road work, when government agencies hurry to use up their budgets before the Japanese fiscal year ends March 31. Japan is a country addicted to construction, and by law all car- and gasoline-related taxes must be used to build roads and only roads, even if there's no particular need for more roads this year. As a result, March always marks a huge increase in road work throughout the country, with no actual benefit visible to anyone. If Japan wants to devote so much of its budget process to construction, why don't they use it in ways that are more useful, like burying those ugly power lines underground, or bringing fast Internet to more parts of the country?

Monday, March 20, 2006

Bilingualism and "English wars" between my kids, the American-or-British question, and 4-kanji phrases

I've always been fascinated with the subject of bilingualism, of how the brain adapts to thinking in two languages, and I watch this process in my kids whenever I can. The other day I caught an interesting exchange between my son and daughter, who both speak both Japanese and English, but with different areas of expertise. For some reason, they were having a fight, and Rina (whose pronunciation of English is excellent) asked teasingly, "Kazuki, can you say the word 'perfect'?" This word, like "girl" "jewelry" and "It's the rich aroma and full body of Excella that wakes the morning all around the world" (from Meg Ryan's Nescafe commercial), seems to be difficult for Japanese to say, and my son has a complex about having a "katakana" accent when he speaks English. Kazuki knows a lot more vocabulary than his sister, though, and fired back, asking if she knew what "condensation" meant (a word he picked up in his science class). He scored a victory when she didn't know the word. I was having great fun eavesdropping on their "English wars."

When I was studying Japanese at SDSU, I enjoyed hunting down and learning a certain kind of phrase that exists in Japanese (and Chinese) called yomoji jukugo 四文字熟語 or four-character idiomatic compounds. Similar to the concept of idioms in English, these phrases are always written with four kanji characters, and Japanese people usually don't expect foreigners to know them, which makes them extra-fun to learn. The phrase happo bijin (八方美人, ha-POH BE-jeen) literally means "eight-direction beautiful person" and describes someone who tries to be liked by everyone but is trusted by no one. Next, nana-korobi ya-oki (七転八起, na-na koh-ROH-bee yah-OH-kee) could be translated as "fall down seven times, get up an eighth" and is similar to "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again." Jigo jitoku (自業自得, ji-GOH ji-TOH-koo) is written with kanji that mean "self-enterprise, self-profit," and the phrase corresponds to "you've made your bed, now sleep in it" or "it serves you right." One of the most famous 4-character compound words is the slogan of the Meiji Restoration, when pro-Emperor reformers worked to overthrow the Shogunate and "restore" the Emperor to power as a monarchy, sonno joi (尊王攘夷, sone-NOH JOH-ee), or "Respect the Emperor, expel the foreign barbarians" (just like our T-shirts). Finally, there's a word I like a lot, issho kenmei (一生懸命, ee-SHO KEN-mei), which literally means "risking your only life" and corresponds to "trying hard with all your might."

Almost all Japanese study six years of English by the time they're done with high school, but there's a question with no official answer: do they study American or British English? The Japanese have always had great respect for England, a brethren island nation with a strong culture, and have patterned much of their government after the U.K., right down to NHK, which is essentially a clone of the BBC. Still, the Japanese tend to study American pronunciation and spelling ("color" not "colour"), as a general rule, in part because of the long influence of the postwar occupation but also because of the "Hollywood factor" -- the cumulative effect of all those rented episodes of '24.' I've got a singer friend named Chaka who went to Australia and was told she had an "American" accent, which really surprised her, since she never thought much about what kind of English she was learning.

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