Saturday, August 12, 2006

Differences between Japanese and English, how to say "like" in Japanese, and what's up with that wax food?

When you start studying Japanese, one of the first things you learn is that sentence structure will not be anything like what you're used to. Japanese is a SOV (subject-object-verb) language, compared to the SVO structure of English, so right off the bat things are laid out differently. Parts of Japanese sentences are "marked" with grammatical particles that denote the subject, object, predicate and so on, although these are often omitted from actual speech (as are superfluous things like subjects). Often, a given vocabulary word will "map" to English differently. For example, there are two ways to express the concept of "cold" in Japanese: "tsumetai" (cold to the touch) and "samui" (coldness in the air). In English, we use the word "good" to refer both to quality (a car, a shirt) and taste (pizza, ice cream), but in Japanese these concepts are separated: something that's good is ii (pronounced like the letter "E"), but things that taste good are oishii (tasty). If you've ever noticed Japanese to over-use the word "delicious" when talking about food, this is the reason. While some of the differences between the two languages were hard and took getting used to, there were times when I actually get a break. Whole sections of English grammar like conditional sentences ("if I had only known she would be late..."), helping verbs and so on have no equivalent in Japanese and can be happily ignored.

If you watch anime in Japanese at all, one word you will probably become aware of quickly is suki which means "like" (usually said quickly, so that it sounds like "ski"). The proper usage would be something like watashi wa sushi ga suki desu, literally "as for sushi, I like it." Since Japanese like to omit unnecessary words, a more common version would be just sushi ga suki, "[I] like sushi," since the subject is generally understood. When one person confesses their feelings for another in anime, suki desu is what they'll probably say, although this is actually using the word for "like" rather than "love." That would be ai shiteru but it's almost never used because most people feel it sounds corny. A variation of suki ("like") is dai-suki ("big-like"), usually said by a cute female anime character before they glomp a male character violently in a big bear-hug.

If you've ever been to Japan, one thing that might have stood out to you is the way restaurants display wax replicas of their meals in a glass case in the front of the restaurant, which lets customers get a feel for the food before going inside. Accurately recreating food in wax so that it looks delicious enough to eat is an art form in Japan, and the artists who create the fake wax food are very much in demand by restaurants who want to show how good their meals are to potential customers passing by on the street. The wax replica food served as the inspiration for Re-Ment, the company that's so good at making tiny miniature versions of Japanese food as well as kitchen items, school supplies, household goods, and anything else you can think of -- everything they make is fabulously detailed, complete with little chopsticks and silverware, and are a fun way to sample this aspect of Japanese culture. Re-Ment toys are great whether you want to display the amazing miniatures as-is, use them with conventional dolls, or whatever. (Full sets of most Re-Ment items are usually in stock.)

Well, my sojourn in the U.S. is finally at an end, and it's time for me to head back to Japan. I've had a lot of fun with my kids in America, taking them to see parts of their "second" country that are new to them and letting them see what a big, interesting place America is. I'm headed home today, leaving the kids behind to polish their English skills some more, and giving me some kid-free quality time with my wife, muhahaha! I'll see you on the other side of the pond.

Remember that J-List carries dozens of great yaoi products for fans of this unique art form from Japan. We also have the very first "BL" PC dating-sim game ported to English, a great title called Enzai - Falsely Accused, a great dating-sim with a complex story set in Napoleonic France. Our 2nd yaoi title, the gorgeous Absolute Obedience, is very near to being completed, too -- you can preorder it for free shipping when it's ready!

To see all the J-List products, check out J-List or the updated products link.

Various images from "back east." Here's me driving over the big bridge they have over the Chesapeke.

How many do you have in your glove compartment? For me, taking Taco Bell sauce home is a requirement.

Promoting healthy eating among Americans again, I see.

This birdhouse is so "Witness" I just had to take a picture.

There is a NASA Credit Union, can you beat that? There's also a talk radio station for public employees in D.C.

I love it when American companies come up with bizarre Japanese names. Near my house in San Diego there's a sushi place called "Kabuki Sushi."

Kaz and I decided we loved Slurpees, and had them almost every day.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Understanding Japan through job resumes, reflections on the word "otaku" and Obi-Wan on our "point of view"

One way to compare Japan's more structured society with the U.S. and Europe is to look at the standardized Japanese resume form, called rirekisho (ree- REK-sho, "employment history form"). When you want to apply for a job in Japan, be it for a truck driver or sushi chef or computer programmer, you drop by a stationery store, pick up one of these standardized forms and fill it out by hand. Virtually everything that's important about you is recorded on the form: name, address, past school and career history, what special certificates or qualifications you've got, and so on. There's also a place to affix a photo so potential employers can see what you look like, always in the same place on every form. Some information isn't recorded, of course, like blood type, since employers might have biases about people of a certain blood type. The form is very different from the open-ended way job resumes are prepared in the U.S., usually a single sheet that succinctly describes a person's school and work history and career goals. Unlike the Japanese resume form, there's no set format for a resume in the States, and there are thousands of variables that could affect how yours might look. Plain font or fancy? Colored paper? Traditional layout or something more eye-catching? What level of information to include? It can boggle the mind, and I'm sure that Japanese who have to write English resumes for any reason have lots of trouble knowing where to start.

Obi-Wan was right: much of the way we view the world depends greatly on our own point of view, and how you look at a complex country like Japan is the same. You can approach Japan from many angles, learning about the country through martial arts, Zen Buddhism, toy culture, JPOP and JROCK, origami, Japanese TV dramas, and so on. Like many in the current generation, I got interested in Japan through anime, drawn in by the dramatic stories that saw actual resolution, and characters who actually died. When I started studying Japanese, I knew I needed input in the language, so I began reading manga like the Rumiko Takahashi classic Maison Ikkoku, the story of a poor college student's long efforts to woo the widow who runs his apartment. Studying Japanese through manga is especially good, since almost everything is spoken dialogue that can be digested and used as-is. I also embraced karaoke as a way to approach the contry, going to Japanese restaurants in San Diego and memorizing the songs and the kanji that displayed on the screen. The many fascinating aspects of Japan are like bridges over the sea, allowing us to walk right up and say hello.

At Otakon I talked on several panels, including one on "trends in otaku culture in Japan," where I got a lot of questions about the word otaku itself. Although it's come to equal "anime fan" or "anime geek" here in the West and serve as a badge of honor for those who revere Japanese popular culture, the word otaku is originally a polite word meaning "you" or "your family." It's kind of a "housewife word," with the most common usage being between housewives in the neighborhood. Urayamashii ne, otaku no ko wa mainichi benkyo, one might say to another, meaning "I really envy you, your son studies everyday." (Japanese are into praising each other's kids while putting their own kids down in front of others, it's a humility thing.) The word became used to refer to people who obsessed over anime in the 1990s when Gainax release their classic Otaku no Video, which documents one character's slide from "normalcy" into otakuhood. More than any other animation company, Gainax has helped create a self-aware "otaku" generation (and we thank them for it).

J-List has a great line of wacky Japanese T-shirts, which present funny or aesthetically beautiful kanji shirt designs for you. We've got dozens of shirts for guys and girls, as well as great hoodies for the cooler months, in stock for you, all printed here in San Diego by our dedicated staff. We're always closing out designs to make room for others, so if you like the look of one of our shirts, you might want to get before the design is cycled out in favor of new ideas. We've recently reduced the price of some of our close-out shirts, including a cool shirt that teaches you some Japanese words and culture. Why not browse our great T-shirts today?

Some more pictures from the show. I was hanging out in Artist Alley a lot, snapping picturs and handing out our world-famous J-List tissues.

Now this guy has had a great idea!

Another nice costume...

This wounded Gundam holds and sign that says, "Will shoot Zakus for anime."

I'm so glad I'm a father. I know I wouldn't be able to enjoy the Harry Potter books as much if it weren't for being able to read the books through my kids' eyes.

Wow, old school. Hey, were these guys even born when Speed Racer was on the air?

Someone was distributing deodorant to random fans, and one girl gave this to me. I was mildly offended.

All too true, all too true...

This was taken before the show, when we were on our way back from a trip to Virginia. You gotta love their moxy.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

More reflections on "freedom" and how it relates to James Dean, my trip to the Moon, and Japanese "standing nails"

Well, Otakon has passed and we're safely back in San Diego, our long, multi-stage vacation across America finally over. After finishing up at the convention, we spent Sunday in D.C. so that my son could see the many amazing sights there. We started with the Capital and walked all the way to the Lincoln Memorial ("the place from Planet of the Apes"), taking in various monuments along the way. One of the challenges of raising a child who's both American and Japanese is exposing him to the cultural knowledge Americans take for granted, George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and all that. I had my work cut out for me, explaining the history of the nation mainly through the presidents that appear on the U.S. currency and trying to impress upon him why archaic language like "four score and seven years ago" is important We capped off our day at one of my favorite places in the world, the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, took in the great aeronautical achievements of the past century, went to the moon courtesy of IMAX, and did the requisite touching of the moon rock. It was a great memory.

I talked last time about what the idea of "freedom" might mean to the Japanese, at least the students I taught English to. In general Japan is what's known as heiwa-boke (hay-WAH BOH-kay), roughly meaning "going soft in the head from too much peace." Japan has spent the last six decades completely free of war, with the exception of peacekeeping efforts in Cambodia and now Iraq. I grew up with ideas from the American Revolution like "the tree of liberty, from time to time, must be replenished with the blood of patriots and tyrants" (Jefferson), but Kim Jung-il notwithstanding, Japan has very little in the way of external threats to its liberty that would make people think about what "freedom" might mean in the larger, philosophical sense. So "freedom" comes to mean the freedom to do the things they're not allowed to do in Japan, like wear the clothes they want to school (almost all junior high and high schools have required uniforms), the freedom to drive or work a part-time job (forbidden for students), freedom to listen to rockabilly music, or freedom to imitate your heroes on Hollywood. I definitely feel lucky as an American to have a better idea of what "freedom" should really mean.

I'm always interested in Japanese who recognize the limitations of Japan's more structured society and find ways around them. One person I knew had finally gotten into Aoyama University in Tokyo, a prestigious private school, after years of preparation and study. Once in the school, he found...nothing that interested him. It's common for Japanese university students to study very hard to pass a school's entrance exam, then play around for four years while they wait to graduate, and that's what he saw happening. So he dropped out -- how scandalous! -- and restarted his university career in Oregon, enjoying a much broader education in the U.S. and perfecting his English in the process. America is very much an open plain, with little in the way of established social grooves that people feel they must move through, as in Japan, and this suited my friend very well. One of the famous sayings in Japan is deru kui wa utareru, or "the standing nail will be hammered down," meaning that people who stick out will usually be brought into line with social norms in the end. If you were to make a list of Japanese who have done really outstanding things over the past century, I'm sure you'd see that most or all of them were very much "standing nails." I'm sure my friend will do great things in the future.

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Neo and Smith and one of our T-shirts in the background there.

Speaking of our shirts, they were there, even though J-List wasn't represented officially at any booth.

Cosplayers from Animamundi, wow.

Ulp, $5 for ramune? That's ridiculous in the extreme.