Friday, August 25, 2006

Understanding how perceptions of foreigners affects us, learning culture through anime, and time to study some Japanese!

All countries are affected to a certain extent by the views of foreigners. I've read that the Chinese never really thought much of the series of loosely connected walls that ran through their country until foreigners came in and started raving about it, naming it the Great Wall and everything. America certainly has internalized the image of Ellis Island and Lady Liberty that was brought in by European immigrants over the past 150 years, making it part of our modern self-perception. Japan is also affected by the opinions of foreigners here, and in many cases the passion gaijin feel for Japan spreads to Japanese people as well. A show my wife likes to watch a lot is NHK's Eigo de Shabera-Night, which explores how Japanese can best go about learning English, inviting guests like former U.N. Assistant Secretary General Yasushi Akashi to talk about how they struggled at mastering the difficult language. The other day they had a segment that took viewers on a tour of Kyoto hosted by bilingual foreigners who lived in the city. It was interesting to see Kyoto through the eyes of these gaijin, and hear them rave about their favorite parts of the city -- the passion they felt for Kyoto was really contagious.

One of the things I like about Japanese animation is that it always opens your mind to new cultural concepts, and even something like how names work in Japanese can be gleaned from anime. Names function quite differently in politeness-sensitive Japan than in the U.S., and it's common for people to use keigo (polite speech) when addressing others in a school or work setting, or if the person is older than you, e.g. "Fujita-san" or "Tomo-san" (fairy formal) rather than just "Tomo" (very informal). Lately I've been on an Orange Road kick, watching the second movie, the novel for which I translated and put on the net a decade ago (link on J-List site). In the movie, the main character Kyosuke gets "time-slipped" to three years into the future, which causes some challenges when his "younger" sister starts talking differently to him because she's technically older now. Another plot point revolves around when he started calling his girlfriend Madoka by her first name (as informal as you can get in Japan -- one guess when that was). Another old-school fave of mine is Maison Ikkoku, the Rumiko Takahashi classic that tells the story of college student Godai's attempts to woo the manager of the apartment he lives in, the recently widowed Kyoko. Because she's older than him, he calls her "Kyoko-san" during their courtship, and only at their wedding reception, after he's become her husband and thus on the same level as her, can be bring himself to drop the formal -san ending and call her by her name, Kyoko.

Every year in December, thousands of foreigners take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, the primary way of testing your Japanese language skills. Once upon a time I disliked Japan's test-based approach to learning, yet after using the JLPT to help improve my own language ability, I can recommend it as a good way to make yourself study -- there's nothing like having a clear goal in front of you to motivate yourself. There are four levels to the test, set up so that you can try a new level each year. Level four is the easiest, testing hiragana, katakana and a hundred or so kanji, while level one is super hard, being the goal you need to clear if you want to attend a Japanese university. By happy coincidence, J-List happens to have some good study tools for the JLPT, including previous year's tests you can use for practice. The test is given at various cities around Japan and the world, and the deadline for applying is coming up within a few weeks -- so this is your official wake-up call if you'd like to challenge the test this year. If you'd like information on how you can sign up for the test, this siteis a good page to start (although I apologize if things aren't as clear as they could be).

Announcing the newest line of product offerings: kanji hats with our famous wacky Japanese messages on them! Our new professionally embroidered hats are a great way to wear a unique Japanese message on your head and show off your uniqueness to everyone. Manufactured by Alternative Apparel, the stylish Vintage Twill baseball caps are great, enzyme-washed for extra softness and featuring a sturdy brass buckle for "set and forget" head sizing. Enjoy our first two hats, our best-selling "Looking for a Japanese Girlfriend" design and a favorite of mine, our "Otaku" Oakley logo parody.

Remember that J-List has plenty of cool "back to school" items for you or your young ones, from unique pens, pencils and notebooks to pencil casesthat will make study fun, and more. We've got "fude pens" that let you write as if you were using a Chinese writing brush, cool erasers that are the best you can find anywhere in the world. We've also got study aids that can help you improve in any subject, such as Japanese flashcard blanks (quiz yourself to learn more), and the very cool Zebra Check Set, which lets you highlight information with a special pen then "magically" make it disappear with a red overlay while you test yourself on the answers.


My son is a meticulous little guy, and when he decided that he was going to take a picture of lightning (which flashed constantly while we were there), nothing could disuade him.



The sunset was really beautiful there.



This little guy strung us along for all kinds of food. When he went into the canyon, my son dove after him, as in, dove over the wall part, with only a little embankment from keeping him from going all the way over.



For the record, Americans get Japanese wrong too. They meant 検定 not 限定 on this sign.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The subject of English lyrics in Japanese songs, the drama of "juken hell," and useless trivia for you

First, the J-List site went down for a couple hours on Tuesday night, U.S. time, due to a server hiccup, but all is well now. Very sorry if you were trying to check out our site during this period!

One subject that's always fascinated me has been the tendency of Japanese singers to mix English lyrics in with Japanese music. When listening to a popular Japanese song, including many from anime, it's quite common to hear a stream of apparently meaningless words or phrases, like "stay! stay! stay!" or "get chance and luck!" or "nice to meet you, good to see you!" or "un du trois!" (the latter is not even English, but no one here notices that). The words seem quite random and whimsical, but if you translate the surrounding Japanese lyrics, the meaning usually meshes together into some larger gestalt. The trend towards putting English in songs supposedly started with famous singer Yumi Matsutoya, who grew up near Yokota Base, one of the major U.S. military bases near Tokyo, and was fluent in English since childhood. During the 1970s, "Yuming" scored with many hit songs that mixed English with Japanese lyrics, such as "You don't have to worry, worry, [I will protect you]," and the face of pop music in Japan has never been the same since. I believe the reason "decorating" songs with English words has proved so popular is tied to the emotional link that Japanese feel to the language. Since most every Japanese person has to study English for six years, or ten if they go to college, making use of phrases like "body feels exit!" or "I do my homework!" allows songwriters to push emotional buttons that wouldn't be accessible with Japanese lyrics, even if the meaning is lost in translation.

Although Spike TV's English-dubbed version of Hey! Spring of Trivia didn't seem to get much traction with U.S. viewers, it's still one of our favorite shows here in Japan. Here are some useless bits of Japanese trivia that aired on the show in recent months. In Osaka there's a batting center with a Hello Kitty pitching machine in which "Kitty-chan" pitches balls at batters. The word "boycott" comes from a person's name, Charles Boycott, an Irish landlord who was "boycotted" by the residents of his town over a land dispute. Flamingos are pink because they're fed special food containing shrimp meal to make them that color. Edison proposed to his second wife in Morse code. In 1948, Nagoya's baseball team the Dragons issued new uniforms with the name misspelled as "Doragons." Oh, and papaya seeds taste like wasabi when you bite down on them.

Each country is different, and the kinds of subjects that make good drama or comedy on television are probably just as unique. In Japan, one popular vehicle for depicting human drama is "juken hell," the period from summer to the following February when students in their third year of high school must study day and night if they have a hope of getting into their university of choice. Passing this test is the defining moment in the lives of Japanese students up to that point, and success means achieving your life's goals, while failure means a clouded future. One of my formative anime series was Kimagure Orange Road, a story about a love triangle between two girls, Hikaru and Ayukawa, and a guy, Kyosuke, who happens to be an esper with super powers that he can't let anyone find out about. The movie that resolves the long-running love triangle is set against the backdrop of Kyosuke and Ayukawa preparing for their all-important college exams, which adds an extra dimension of crisis to the story, since much more than just the feelings of the three people is at risk. There's one scene that I like because it's so uniquely Japanese, where a teacher yells at Kyosuke, "You in the back! Don't you know you're supposed to resolve all your problems d'amour by the second year of high school?" High school seniors in Japan are much too busy to worry about things like falling in love.

J-List is hiring! We've got a full-time position in our San Diego office for a motivated individual with skills and experience in the areas of marketing and managing wholesale accounts. Knowledge of the U.S. anime industry is a plus. For more information on the job opening, see this link. (While we usually only consider people already in the San Diego area, we are open to people who would be relocating from another part of the U.S., depending on your skills and experience in the anime industry.)

Here are today's "really cool products" that I thought were especially noteworthy. Note: the J-List links below may be for adult products and should probably be considered "not safe for work." To see all the J-List products, check out J-List or the JBOX.com updated products link.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The custom of gift-giving in Japan, the problem of Japanese forgetting kanji, and my kids' approach to bilingualism

One complex subject in Japan is that of gift giving. The Japanese are very much into exchanging gifts, and the goodwill that it creates provides a valuable social "lubrication" that makes all manner or personal and business relationships work more smoothly. In July and December there are two gift-giving seasons, when people will give gifts to thank teachers or others in the community to thank them for their past assistance. Predictably, these specially made gift boxes containing anything from coffee to cooking oil to laundry detergent are often passed on to others, with some gifts changing hands many times before they're actually used. This tradition of giving gifts exists in the business world too -- employees give gifts to their bosses right before bonus time, and companies exchange gifts too, thanking each other for their business. (This year we gave V-8 style canned vegetable juice to companies we have relationships with in Japan.) Incidentally, if you ever come to Japan, it's probably a good idea to bring some items to give out as gifts to people you might encounter here -- something representative of wherever you're from, or even a carton of cigarettes from your home country, always a popular item. (The smoking staff of J-List says that Newport Menthols are a good brand, since they're not sold here.)

There are four writing systems used in Japanese: hiragana and katakana, two syllable-based systems used to express Japanese and foreign words, respectively; the Roman alphabet, the "unofficial" writing system that everyone needs in order to function in society; and kanji, the complex ideographs imported from China through Korea in the 6th century A.D. You need to be able to read around 2000 kanji to be considered literate in Japan (not as bad as it sounds), and the government maintains a list of official "general use kanji" (常用漢字) that are used in books, newspapers, etc. One problem the Japanese are grappling with now is a sharp reduction in the ability to write kanji in the younger generations, because of devices like computers and "keitai" (portable) phones bring up the correct kanji for you automatically. As email and other forms of 21st Century-style communication change the daily lives of Japanese, the number of people who are unable to write kanji well is going up.

I'm writing this at Narita Airport right now, as my wife and I wait for our kids to arrive from the U.S. Our kids are quite interesting in how they handle speaking English and Japanese, and I've always loved observing their bilingual language growth. My daughter, who is very "going my way" (as the Japanese say, meaning that does things her own way), switches from Japanese to English mode almost the moment she arrives in the U.S., never letting something like not knowing what a certain word means get in the way of communication. She's extremely sociable in both languages, and makes friends with kids she's just met, something that's quite rare in Japan. My son is much more cautious in his approach to English, and if he's not sure of the correct usage of a certain vocabulary word or grammar point, he will usually choose to say nothing, which makes people assume he can't speak English even though he reads English at one grade above his current level. The lesson is clear: fear of making a mistake is the bane of the language learners, and it's far better to say the wrong thing than nothing.

Remember that J-List has posted the first of our incredible onslaught of 2007 Japanese calendars, a near-the-end-of-the-year tradition here going back to the very beginning a decade ago. We've got dozens of fantastic large-format calendars that are sold exclusively in the Japanese market on the site for you, with even more great calendars posted today, including views of Mt. Fuji, calendars that look like traditional kakejiku scrolls, beautiful women in kimonos, traditional Japanese rooms, fantastic art calendars by artists like Ichiro Tsuruta, and more. Our calendars make great gifts, too, for yourself or anyone else. Browse our selection now!