Friday, September 01, 2006

The hierarchy of language in Japan, trouble for "unhurried education" and, is my wife a Desperate Housewife?

Hello again from Japan, where, when two people say the same thing at the same time, they're then supposed to shout "Happy ice cream!"

There's no doubt about it: Japan has had a fascination with the West ever since the appearance of Admiral Perry's "Black Ships" in 1852, and that enigma continues to be a part of the Japanese psyche to this day. But while Japan has often had a uniquely close relationship with the United States, either through trade or as a result of the Occupation, the continent of Europe seems to carry a bit more mystique. You can see this at work when you take a look at the world of Japanese tarento or "talents," a catch-all word for actors, comedians and other famous TV-types. While television personalities like Hikaru Utada or Yu Hayami who can speak English fluently get a lot of "wow points" with fans, there seems to be a hierarchy at work, with Japanese bilingual in languages other than English getting more respect. When actress Kumiko Goto married French F1 racer Jean Alesi, people expected her career to fade, but she's more popular than ever, appearing occasionally in commercials or variety shows speaking French (oo la la). Recently retired soccer star Hidetoshi Nakata was known for wowing fans by appearing on Italian TV and speaking the language fluently, which immediately put him at the top of the worldwide pantheon of Japanese athletes. Sometimes linguistic bridges of understanding are built closer to home, as when Tsuyoshi Kusanagi of the long-running SMAP comedy/ singing group learned Korean and built a comedy career for himself on the other side of the Sea of Japan.

American television studios have found a great market for their products in Japan, with hit shows like 24, Prison Break and CSI: Miami scoring big with viewers, who watch them on pay satellite channels or NHK, or rent them one disc at a time at the local rental shop. My wife seems to be leading the charge, watching virtually every show that's released here, coming back from the rental shop with 5-6 discs every time I turn around. Sometimes I watch along with her, giving silent thanks for the Japanese subtitles on the screen, which keep me from having to try to explain difficult words to her in Japanese. The shows are popular, but just as with fans around the world watching animation from Japan, there are cultural issues raised. For example, in my wife's current favorite, Desperate Housewives, the subject of marriage councilors come up quite a bit, but Japan is a country where the concept of telling your problems to a therapist is an alien one, and I'm sure there's more than a little viewer confusion at times.

For the past few years, Japan has been engaged in an experiment to take some of the pressure out of its famed educational system, switching to what is called yutori kyoiku or "unhurried education." The idea has been to ratchet back Japan's achievement-focused educational system and provide a broader, less stressed experience for children. Some of the reforms are being rolled back, however, as Japan falls further and further behind other nations in areas of education where it once reigned supreme. Whereas Japan used to be ranked near the top in math and science, it's now somewhere around 18th place, being easily bested by countries like South Korea and India. That's why my daughter's summer vacation ended a week earlier than normal, because school officials are reacting to the poor educational performance of students by increasing the time spent in school. I certainly hope that the recent trends can be reversed.

J-List makes dozens of anime, manga, cosplay, fashion, toy and other magazines available to you through our popular "reserve subscription" system. Just sign up, and we'll send you the new issue of the magazine(s) you want, until you tell us to stop, and credit card, check or money order or Paypal are accepted. Today we've added a new reserve magazine, Tokyo Journal, a great quarterly that brings you hard-hitting stories about life, culture and politics in Japan's largest city. I distinctly remember reading about Aum Shinrikyo and other topical events of the day back in the old days of 1995, so it's cool that I be able to bring this magazine to people outside of Japan.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Stereotypes of foreigners by Japanese including Girls from Ipanema, Japan's "other" staple food, and more

Living outside my home country as I do, the subject of stereotypes has always interested me. Everyone has certain preconceived notions about people from other countries, some of which are based on real observations, while others come from erroneously overgeneralizing. 1.27% of the population of Japan is made up of gaijin, and while this is nothing compared to some countries -- almost 10% of people in Germany hail from elsewhere -- it's natural that Japanese here will develop stereotypes of foreigners living in their midst.

First of all, some Japanese have a tendency to think of all foreigners as being either Americans or Europeans, even though those groups make up a tiny sliver of the population here -- people from Brazil, Peru, and Pakistan are far more common in my city. They think that all foreigners are tall, and if I get into a Japanese person's car they are likely to apologize for it being so cramped, even though I am actually of average height. The Brazilian women here tend to wear Ipanema-style bikinis that are far more daring than Japanese women could ever wear to the local pool, and one J-List staff member says they remember thinking that all women from other countries must be that bold, including Americans. Unfortunately, foreigners are sometimes either ignorant of, or care less about, some common aspects of politeness here, and one impression Japanese have of some gaijin is ki ni shinai -- they don't worry about anything, even apologizing for something when they make a mistake. The Japanese spend a lot of time with no shoes on, and once a man told me he was sure that a Westerner could never pick a pencil up off the floor with his toes, since we wore shoes all the time (I promptly proved him wrong). Finally, as an American, I've naturally been asked numerous times in classrooms if I owned a gun when I lived in the States, or how many guns, or had I ever shot anyone. The sad truth is that some Japanese, especially younger students who have never come into contact with the U.S., have the mistaken image that all Americans sleep with guns under their pillows. Naturally, this is something I've worked hard to change in my years here in Japan.

Everyone knows that rice is the staple food of the Japanese, eaten with almost every meal. The "other" staple food in Japan would have to be soybeans, which are the source of a great variety of Japanese foods. Miso soup, a hot soup made from fermented miso paste, is an extremely healthy dish that's enjoyed with every traditional Japanese breakfast, and served with other meals. Tofu is another popular food, used in many Japanese and Chinese recipes, or good served chilled on a hot afternoon with soy sauce poured over it. Natto is the famous fermented soybeans that are popular in much of the country, although less so in the Kansai/Osaka area, to say nothing of my mouth. My kids eat it all the time, and when they want to tease me they come up to me and breathe Natto breath on me -- ugh. Japan couldn't get through a day without soy sauce, of course, the single most common condiment in Japanese kitchens, even more than salt and pepper. Finally, soybeans play a important cultural role each February on Setsubun, the traditional end of the year according to the old lunar calendar, when you throw them at imaginery devils to chase away evil and bring happiness into the home. (By the way, we've got lots of miso soup on the site now...)

Among the other cool things that J-List carries, we've got authentic "loose socks," those baggy, oversized socks that Japanese high school girls wear. We have two sizes to choose from, the standard 70 cm and the "super" 120 cm, which provide extra sock length to allow you to bunch it up around your ankles just so. If you find that the weight of the socks causes them to fall down we've got real "socks glue" to glue them to your leg so they'll stay looking great.

Remember that J-List is hiring right now. We're looking for someone for our San Diego office with experience in the U.S. anime industry who can help us grow our unique brand of Japanese pop culture. If you're interested in learning more, please see this page for more information

Monday, August 28, 2006

New "keitai" phones for my family, all about Japanese names, and the Pluto - Gamilon connection

Saturday was "new keitai day" for our family, and we all went down to the local "au" store to get new mobile phones (keitai, in Japanese). As usual, the pace of technology in Japan is very fast, and even though it's been just a year since I got my last phone, there had been two complete generations of new models introduced in the interim. The new crop of phones included features like "Wanseg" digital TV viewing with a screen that can rotate horizontally, a phone with a physical switch to go from "business" to "personal" mode, and the football helmet-tough Casio's G'z One, made for people who drop their phones a lot (like me). As usual, Japanese phone manufacturers are all about style, and each of the phones had a unique, fresh approach to appeal to a different segment of phone buyers, with several phones specifically touting their simple "Friendly Design(tm)." All the phones we looked at had features such as GPS "Safety Navigation" (so we can find missing family members), extra-large text for older users, music capabilities, cameras, and a virtual "Hello Message!" room where you and your friends can chat with each other, with each person represented by a different animal. While it was nice to have some cool phones to choose from, there are almost no "smart" phones like the Treo or Blackberry here, since kana can be entered quickly with a ten-key pad and Japanese consumers presumably find phones with QWERTY keyboards to be ugly.

Because names in Japanese are written in kanji, they have meanings that are mysterious to foreigners. Western names have meanings, too -- my name, Peter, comes from "rock" in Greek, and "Payne" supposedly comes from the French "pain" (bread), similar to the English last name Baker. Some characters used in many Japanese last names include:

Yama = Mountain 山
Ta (or da) = Rice field 田
Naka = Middle 中
Matsu = Pine 松
Kawa (or gawa) = River  川
Kon (or Kane) = Gold (usually indicates Korean ancestry, e.g. Kim) 金

Gaijin are also interested in learning how to write their own names in kanji, too. While foreign names are most properly written in the katakana syllabary system, it's possible to "force" a non-Japanese name into kanji. For example, someone named George can choose two characters with the readings of "jo" and "ji" (like, 条寺 just to throw something out) Similarly, you could translate the name into similar kanji, for example choose characters for "lock" and "tree" if your last name was Lockwood. I wanted to write my name in kanji, but there are no characters that are read "pe" or "pi," so I broke the rules, putting a circle next to other kanji to change the pronounciations (which is quite silly, trust me). I accidentally registered that bizarre, 6-character name with our local city office, and now my wife groans every time she has to explain why her American husband has such a bizarre name in kanji...

Pluto's demotion from planetary status is causing quite a lot of discussion across the Internet, and in Japan, too. On one show I happened to be watching, a panel of experts was talking about the fate of our ninth planet, each giving various opinions on the subject. "But what about the Gamilons?" one of them asked. In the 1979 anime show Space Cruiser Yamato (Star Blazers in English), a race of aliens called the Gamilons establishes a base on Pluto and uses it to send radioactive planet bombs to Earth, and it's up to the Yamato to destroy the base and the deadly Reflex Gun. There was a lot of tongue-in-cheek discussion about how the change in Pluto's status might affect the Gamilons' plans for attacking the Earth now that Pluto wasn't a "real" planet anymore.

I have to take issue with you Americans. What are you doing, letting General Mills release abominations like this???

Or this???

These were pretty disturbing, until I realized it was a way for Hershey's to capture a portion of the M&M's market.

However, bubble gum flavored floss, that's just weird.

I did see some things I approved of. LIike the 100 calorie packaged foods. Way to go, guys! (Also, when I flew on Southwest I was happily surprised that they gave out treats that were downright healthy.)

Then again, there are some unhealthy foods still at large in the USA.