Friday, May 26, 2006

Aya Ueto's hit drama in Japan, how my son perceives English grammar as music, and what a "cat's tongue" means

The most popular "unit" of television in Japan is the drama, which usually run for 15 weeks of hour-long episodes, with a clear-cut finale that resolves all the issues and love triangles in the story. Dramas star famous faces like lovely actresses Misato Itoh or Akiko Yada or national heart-throb Hayami Mokomichi, and the most successful shows get very high ratings of 20% or more and are usually watched all throughout Asia. Currently one of the most popular dramas on TV is "Attention, Please," starring cute teen idol-turned- serious-actress Aya Ueto, who is attending stewardess training to become a flight attendant. Produced in cooperation of Japan Air Lines (no doubt eager to turn their sagging fortunes around by being affiliated with the popular star), the show follows the adventures of the lead heroine as she goes from being a headstrong girl to someone who really understands what it is to be a professional flight attendant. We've always wanted to get our daughter interested in this career and we've been watching the show with her, dropping subliminal hints about airlines must surely be eager to find flight attendants who can already speak English and Japanese well, like her.

I continue to watch my kids grow up, fascinated at how they go about acquiring English and Japanese. My wife is helping my son study for the Step Test, level 2, a test that's usually taken by students in their third year of high school (and for students who aren't putting a special effort into learning English, not at all). Like most Japanese, my wife has learned English in a very analytical way, memorizing the grammar as if it were a collection of complex formulas. Verbs in English come in three varieties, present tense, past tense and past participle, and Japanese have perfected the memorization of these verbs into a science, spitting out "go, went, went" "eat, ate, eaten" "drive, drove, driven" very easily. My wife naturally tries to impart this to my son, but he refuses to learn English in this way -- he can usually "sense" the correct answer on a test and doesn't need to make it more complex by trying to understand the grammar like his mother does. When she asked him how he was able to get the right answer without consciously knowing the rules of English, he replied, "I can just see the patterns. It's like music." Kids sure are amazing things.

Do you have a cat's tongue? If so, it means that you can't eat hot food or drink hot drinks, just like a cat. The Japanese say that anyone who avoids hot food has a cat's tongue (neko jita). What is you have a lazy eye? If so, then you are rom-pari which is Japanese for "London, Paris" -- i.e. one eye is looking at London and the other is looking at Paris. If you're thinning on top, you might have "bar code hair," as the Japanese say. And if you sneeze, the Japanese say that someone must be gossiping about you (this comes up in anime quite often).

I've always been fascinated with the artistic works of Mitsuo Aida, who took traditional Japanese calligraphy and turned it into a beautiful medium for poetry and fascinating observations on life. I've used his works to study Japanese, and find his insight into life, the universe and everything very interesting. Now we've gotten in two great collections of his unique calligraphy works, complete with English translations, a super item for anyone interested in seeing a new side of Japan. It's something I'm really happy to have on the site.

If you're at San Jose, we hope you'll come to Fanime Con, a great anime convention that runs from May 26-29. We're proud to co-sponsor a great collection of JPOP bands, with five indies bands performing live music at the show, a great way for you to experience some fantastic cutting-edge music from Japan. For more information, go to

More pictures from our trip to Ueno, Tokyo.

This is right outside Ameyoko, the former black market area of Tokyo, now transformed into a wild bazaar of shops and import companies.

Freshness Burger, the best burger in all Tokyo (well...the best chain food burger). Plus the name is cool.

What's this? The famous Trevi Fountain of Rome in the heart of Tokyo?

No, it's just a picture and mini-fountain outside a restroom.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

All about Pizza in Japan, how Japanese social relationships work smoothl, and things I've learned about my brain

I remember my first time ordering Pizza over the phone in Japan. I'd studied four years of the language at SDSU and figured this was a linguistic challenge I was up to, but to my surprise I couldn't make myself understood to the person on the other end of the phone line. Could it be that a pizza delivery company employee didn't understand the word "pepperoni," that most universal of all pizza-related concepts? It turns out I needed to be asking for "pepperoni sausage" instead, and that subtle difference, no doubt coupled with my gaijin-accented Japanese, caused the breakdown. The varieties of pizza that are sold in Japan are always, ah, interesting from a foreigner's perspective. Among the toppings I spied on a recent trip to Pizza Hut (which everyone thinks is Pizza Hat, but I digress) were Gorgeous Salmon, Sea Urchin Glory, and Queen of Crab & Shrimp. Thankfully, more conventional pizza toppings are readily available, too (like the much more reasonable tuna, mayonnaise and corn pizza).

There are some interesting concepts at work in social relationships in Japan. One is enryo, a word which means restraint or as a verb, to refrain from doing something. My Japanese teacher at SDSU explained it to us like this: a Japanese person comes for a visit to your home. You offer them a drink, and they say no thanks, they're fine. You offer again a few minutes later, and again they decline your offer. Finally you make your offer a third time, and they gladly accept. It may sound odd, but enryo is a kind of politeness that's important for getting along in a country with so many people crammed into a small space. It seems to be related to Japanese humility (kenson) -- if you tell a Japanese woman how pretty she is or compliment her English, she'll probably disagree with you strongly, a way in which Japanese avoid being boastful. There are many phrases in Japanese that illustrate this tendency to show humility in front of others. For example, when you give someone a gift, you usually say "Here's something that's not interesting" (tsumaranai mono desu kedo...) or if you bake someone a cake, you say, "I'm not sure if it tastes good or not..." (Oishii ka dou ka wakaranai kedo).

When you use another language you learn a lot about how your own brain works. I've noticed someting interesting -- no matter how much Japanese I've studied, my eyes will naturally lock onto English on a sign full of Japanese, no matter what the content. When traveling throughout Japan it's rather useful to know the place names in kanji, since it's easier to memorize and visualize. Yokohama takes just two memory "units" to memorize if you know kanji (yoko meaning horizontal, and hama meaning beach), whereas the name in English takes eight letters. And yet, if I see a sign with both kanji and English on it, my eyes will go for the English, even if it's written in small characters. The brain is just too used to dealing with the familiar to do anything else.

We've got some good news for fans of bishoujo games, the fascinating interactive dating-sim games for Windows PCs. The long-awaited Doushin - Same Heart is finally in stock and shipping now! This is really a special item from Crowd, a game in which you play the interactive story through the eyes of the three Suruga sisters, Ryoko, Maki and Miho. The three sisters have a special power: when one feels a sensation such as pain, the feeling is broadcast to the other two sisters immediately. And if one of them should start to get turned on...well, let's just say that amazing things will happen. The most deep and complex game released by Crowd yet -- and it's finally shipping!

Pictures from a Pizza Hut. Hmm, salmon pizza...

Sea urchin in sushi form I can handle. On pizza?

Crab on pizza...hmm. Honestly, I couldn't see this, but tuna and mayo pizza isn't that bad.

Some other varieties. Pizza Hut Gourmet (a bunch of toppings), Bacon Mushroom, Tuna Mild and Hawaiian. I love Hawaiian pizza, but most people here hate it more than root beer... Incidentally, the sliced, baked tomatoes they have on pizza here really are to die for.

When we went to Tokyo, we found a more traditional (to Italy, not to the USA) pizza restaurant. The margarita pizza was quite good.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Our trip to Tokyo, Japan's strange connection with Peru, alcoholic green tea, and what Jabba the Hutt can teach you about linguistics

We wanted to do something fun with the kids over the weekend, so we shinked (gaijin-speak for "took the Shinkansen," e.g. the Bullet Train) down to Tokyo to check out the special exhibition on the mysterious lines and geoglyphs in Nazca, Peru at the National Museum of Science. The strange shapes, which form images of a spider, a hummingbird, a condor and so on, were made 1500-2000 years ago, and are a big mystery. It was quite an interesting display -- we looked at many pieces of well preserved pottery with beautiful designs, and even a real mummy they'd brought over. I've always been amazed at the special interest the Japanese seem to take in Nazca, which is featured in some television show or another just about every month here. Maybe it has something to do with the twin connection Japan has with the region, due to the little diaspora of Japanese to South America at the start of the 20th Century, and in prehistoric times, since the same Mongolian stock that colonized Japan also made it to South America. Any trip to Tokyo with kids in tow is a potential stress-fest considering the sheer number of people around you, but it was so crowded at the museum we were all beside ourselves with claustrophobia. As always, going to Tokyo makes me appreciate living in a smaller, slower-paced part of Japan.

As a card-carrying Star Wars fan, I've heard my share of alien languages from all corners of the Lucasverse. I remember watching Return of the Jedi back in 1983 and wondering at a line of Jabba the Hutt's dialogue, "You weak-minded fool! He's using an old Jedi mind trick." The line was spoken in Huttese, an invented language, but the phrase "Jedi mind trick" was in English, and I believe it's the only instance of mixing of languages in Star Wars. Language mixing is known in linguistic terms as "code switching" and if you have two bilingual individuals it's quite natural for them to jump back and forth between the two languages, depending on the ideas they want to express, the environment they're in, and so on. I've got a American friend who recently got his doctorate in Cultural Studies from a Japanese university, and whenever we hit the onsen together, we naturally mix quite a lot of Japanese in with our English conversation, usually to the amazement of Japanese in the bath, who try not to be too obvious as they eavesdrop on us. Of course, part of learning a foreign language is separating the two languages in your mind, easy for adults but a challenge to bilingual children -- my son and daughter got confused when neighborhood kids in America didn't understand their Japanese. There's a great deal of experimentation that goes on in the mind of a child during the separatation process, and it can be fascinating to observe. When he was two or so, I went to a bath with my son, and he commented to me that the cold bath (which you go in after you get heated up in the sauna) sure was "cold-katta." This amused me, since he was mixing the English word cold with the Japanese past tense ending katta.

Ocha no chuuhai

If Japan had a national drink it would have to be green tea, which is consumed in massive amounts and rivals coffee in popularity. Green tea is a major crop here, with Shizuoka Prefecture claiming it as its meibutsu (lit. "famous thing"), building its tourism industry in part around the stuff like Napa or Sonoma do with wine in California. Green tea is very healthy and has been shown to be effective in various areas including cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, cholesterol control and weight loss, but in Japan its popularity is based on its wholesome and mildly bitter taste, which people find delicious. More and more, green tea is finding its way into other products, from caramels to cookies to bath salt ("green's not just for ice cream anymore"). Kirin has even pioneered the first alcoholic drink using green tea: Ocha no Chuhai, a blend of cold green tea and shochu, a traditional Japanese spirit distilled from anything from rice to barley to sweet potatoes. In the picture above, the one on the right is Green Tea Chuhai, and the one on the left is genmai cha, er, unhusked rice tea.

Summer is coming, and that means summer anime conventions! If you're looking for a super costume to wear, J-List humbly recommends the excellent uniforms that we sell in an exclusive arrangement with Matsukameya of Japan. Each uniform is sewn just for you, to the sizes you specify on our detailed chart, and the quality is unbelievably -- honestly, I've never received anything but lowing praise and feedback from J-List customers who have purchased these uniforms. Several styles available, from girl's summer and winter uniforms to the excellent male "gakuran" school uniforms.

We're off to Tokyo. We took an Asama, the red-white-and-blue trains, but I was hoping for a Max (the double-decker trains), which are much cooler.

Japan is always fun when speeding along at 150 kph.

Lady with the food cart.

Finally, we were in Ueno Station. This is a really old, really large station that I usually just pass through. But today, this was our destination. It's pronounced "oo-EH-no" by the way, and you can tell a gaijin who learned Japanese in romaji, rather than kana, because he will pronounced the "U" in Ueno as "you."

Homeless man...check. Yes, we're in Ueno alright.