Friday, October 13, 2006

Japanese tricks to memorize anything, fun with "companions" in Tokyo, and thoughts on evangelical Buddhism

Hello again from Japan, where it's believed that only good things happen on Friday the 13th.

There was a lot of buzz last week about Akira Haraguchi, the Japanese man who recited 100,000 digits of pi from memory, breaking his previous record of 83,431 digits. It seems incredible that the human brain could memorize so many numbers, but when I heard the story I knew exactly how he did it. The Japanese are very adept at coming up with phrases which help them learn important information, especially dates, which in Japan's test-centric educational system are far more important than issues like, why did this historical event take place and how did it affect future events? Whether it's memorizing that the Kamakura Military Government was established in 1192 by using phrase ii kuni o tsukuro (lit. let's make a good country), remembering that the Treaty of Versailles was made in 1919 with iku iku, pari wa berusaiyu (Go! Go! Versailles is in Paris, translatable other ways if you like since iku can mean something sexual), or storing the date of the Reformation of 1517 as ichigo, ii na (I love strawberries), the Japanese can memorize just about anything thanks to the ability of their language to tie numbers to syllables. The English translation of the classic phrase to help memorize pi starts out like this: "Okay, let's go. According to the husbands of good girls, who take their crying selves down to the pier, insects in the rocks are chirping loudly in the darkness." And so on, carried to a Herculean extreme. To this day, my wife can rattle off thirty or forty of the elements on the Periodic Table thanks to memory phrases she learned more than twenty years ago, but I can't get past Helium. (Small note: we recommend the Zebra Check Set for those who want to try out Japanese study methods, it's a great system.)

When I first came to Japan I happened across an advertisement recruiting girls to work as "companions." I was shocked, since this seemed like a very immoral career path indeed, but I was misunderstanding the term. In Japanese, a companion is a girl who works certain events to promote products, smile and generally look pretty. Also called "campaign girls" or "event girls" they're a variant of the creature known in the West under the scientific name boothbabus attractivus, and you don't have to go far in Tokyo to bump into some. I went drinking with a friend last weekend, and in the hip Shibuya district there was an island of beautiful girls, showing off the latest Panasonic music player and getting lots of attention from passers-by. With the rise of moe culture (pronounced mo-E and referring to the burning, happy feeling when you look at super-cute anime characters), there's been more than a little joining of these companions with cosplay, and in Akihabara I encountered pretty girls handing out tissues while wearing maid outfits, costumes from Evangelion, you name it.

Campaign girls from Tokyo

Before I came to Japan in 1991, I had many pre-conceived notions about what I would find, and one was that I would not encounter many Japanese with strong religious beliefs. Although this has held true for the most part, I was surprised to find that there were many religions active in Japan, including Baptists (I was asked to play "Santa-san" at the local Baptist Church my first Christmas here), Catholics (there's a Catholic church in Maebashi that was mysteriously saved when the city was bombed in the final days of World War II), Mormons (they give free English lessons), even Jehova's Witnesses (who hand out a Japanese version of the Watchtower). Another powerful group that has its roots in the Nichiren school of Japanese Buddhism is Soka Gakkai, the only "evangelical" Buddhism I've seen, in that adherents actively try to sign new members up. Being a "new" religion (founded in 1930), I've always felt that the church was similar to the Mormon Church in the U.S. in many ways. Since the end of World War II, Soka Gakkai has expanded into all corners of Japan, and grown so influential that they even formed their own political party, the Komeito, which is the third largest party in Japan (although there are supposedly no longer any ties between the party and the group anymore, and it's taboo to mention the two together in the Japanese press). There are quite a few high-profile members of Soka Gakkai religion, including Orlando Bloom. There is criticism of some of the tactics the group has used to get and keep members, and a quick search on Google brought up pages that were both very much for and against the group. The URL for the group's international site is here if you want to take a peep.

J-List brings the best magazines in Japan via our reserve subscription system, with great offerings like Megami Magazine (apparently dedicated to going out of business by giving cool posters and other items to readers), Goth-Loli Bible (gothic cosplay culture), Hiragana Times (bilingual articles on Japan), FRUiTs and Kera, Shoxx and Cure, Newtype and Animage, and of course popular classics like Urecco. We've added two new magazines today, for people who want to stay on top of the Japanese gaming scene: Playstation Magazine which follows all things on the Sony gaming front including PS3 and PSP, and killer Famitsu DS, with loads of information on the DS front in Japan. Sign up now!

Okay, I have extra time today so I'll throw up some pics.

This is Shibuya on a Saturday, at the famous "scramble intersection" (so named because you have to scramble across or get hit by a taxi). By the way, there's a 90% chance this guy got lucky with the girl he's nampa'ing.

Walking towards the HMV.

Talk about an advertising budget. The upcoming remake of "A Sailor Suit and a Machine Gun" is really getting the big plug. This is one of the most iconic buildings in Tokyo, the Shibuya 109 building.

Mind-bending advertising for some department store.

Gorgeous event girl at the Panasonic booth. It's fun to play with their minds, like trying to get them to speak to you in English like they do on TV shows here. Is she not lovely?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

More on the concept of "senpai" including "gaijin seniority," and the cutting edge of the female pachinko market

I talked last time about the invisible lines drawn between the three social groups in a Japanese school or organization, senpai (upperclassmen, seniors), persons who are on the same level as you seniority- or age-wise, and kohai (lowerclassmen, juniors), three concepts which can be tricky for non-Japanese to grasp. Social rules require that you speak with (slightly) polite language when addressing a senpai, whereas you can speak informally with people on the same or lower level. While we use the word "friend" in a wide range of situations in English, the corresponding Japanese word tomodachi is generally reserved for people who are the same age as you, while the terms senpai/kohai are used to refer to older/younger friends, even if you hang out with them all the time. Since the bursting of Japan's bubble economy in 1989, the vaunted lifetime employment system has all but disappeared, and it's quite common for a person to change jobs 2-3 times in his adult life. This causes a bit of a challenge to the Japanese system of seniority -- if a man in his 50s goes to work at a company with a boss in his 20s, which is the senior? The answer is, the employee with more seniority in the new company, which means that the tidy system of politeness based on age starts to look pretty strange in the Japan of today. It's an interesting example of social forces bringing about changes in language, right before our eyes.

Foreigners in Japan unconsciously pick up on the senior/junior system, too, and when I used to meet new English teachers while drinking at the local bar "AIUEO" (what a great name), we'd ask each other how long we'd been in Japan to establish the proper invisible order of "gaijin seniority." Of course, to be a senpai to someone doesn't just mean a one-way ticket to getting respect from them. You've got to earn it by providing help and guidance to your kohai, doing things like picking up the tab at restaurants and generally assisting them in their jobs. Just as various kind souls helped me get my "Japan legs" when I first arrived here, it was my responsibility to help out newer foreign teachers I encountered, and I did my best to fulfill this responsibility. In our town there's a guy who had everyone beat when it came to gaijin seniority, an American who came to Japan during the Vietnam War and stayed ever since. He writes articles for the Japanese newspaper about how the country has changed since he arrived, and has a kind of mythical status a "First Foreigner" in our prefecture.

The national past time of the Japanese isn't singing karaoke, or writing haiku poems, or taking in the beauty of Mt. Fuji while the cherry blossoms fall all around. For many, it's playing pachinko, essentially a vertically oriented pinball machine which you shoot metal balls into, hoping that enough balls happen to fall into one of the special holes in the machine so that more balls are released, eventually giving you more than you started out with. Although generally viewed as a hobby of middle-aged men, many women play the game, too, and since women have more money (they traditionally control the family finances in Japan), pachinko parlor operators are scrambling to attract this more profitable market segment. The newest theme in pachinko is machines that feature The Rose of Versailles, an anime series about the French Revolution that millions of females in Japan have fallen in love with over the last four decades. While you play, various scenes from the show are displayed on the LCD screen, with updated animation so it looks really nice. If you play well, you get to view special scenes with Oscar and young Marie Antoinette. Other recent pachinko trends include machines centered around enka singer Hibari Misora, and good old Yon-sama, aka South Korean heart-throb Bae Yong Joon, much beloved by middle-aged Japanese women.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Reasons why we hate living next to North Korea, all about the word 'kawaii' and a complex social concept

Japan is buzzing about North Korea's reported underground nuclear test, which took place a few hours ago. The news comes just as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives in Seoul for his first meeting with South Korean President Moo-hyun to begin work on some of the problems that stand between the two countries, including Yasukuni Shrine and Takeshima, an island that both sides are claiming as theirs. As if we needed another reason to dislike living next to one of the world's scariest nations, now we've got confirmed nukes within range of Tokyo, with my home prefecture right in the line of fire. Um, would any country out there be willing to trade places with Japan and live next to North Korea? We'd really appreciate it.

One Japanese concept that was quite hard for me to get down was aisatsu (AI-sa-tsoo), which means "greetings" and is quite a multifaceted idea. Before I started J-List, I worked at our local City Office as an "Officer of Inter- nationalization," doing things like helping other gaijin who didn't speak Japanese when they had problems or needed to use city services. The world of Japanese public employees is a very formal one, and greeting everyone with "ohayo gozaimasu" in the mornings was a strict requirement. Children are raised to greet others too, especially their teachers and upperclassmen, and this symbolic showing of respect is an important part of Japan's "vertically oriented" social system which draws lines between seniors in a school or organization (senpai), students in the same level as you (dokyusei) and juniors/lowerclassmen (kohai). One concern that many of the parents at my son's special elementary school have is, because the students are in the first graduating class of the school, there are no senpai for them to interact with, which some fear would handicap them socially when they get out in the real world. The word aisatsu is applied to some other situations, too, such as when you move into a new apartment and give a small towel to your neighbors as a way of introducing yourself, or the long, drawn out speeches given by the head of any organization at any formal event, like a wedding. The other day, a neighbor brought us a package of manju cakes (rice cakes with sweet beans inside, which I've lived in Japan long enough to love). He was about to start construction on a new house, and had brought us the gift to apologize in advance for the inconvenience and noise that the construction would cause.

One word that has fast becoming a part of English seems to be kawaii (ka-wah-EE, 可愛い written properly), the Japanese term that corresponds to the word "cute" as applied to puppies, kittens, anime characters and most Japanese girls. Grammatically, it's an "i-adjective," like the words oishii (delicious、 美味しい) or takai (tall, expensive、高い), meaning that it ends in a hiragana 'i' (い) sound. Some similar words are kirei (pretty in an elegant way; can also mean clean、奇麗) and utsukushii (beautiful、美しい), and my wife and I have long debates about whether a given actress on TV is cute, pretty or beautiful. Some examples of expressing 'cute':

[That is] cute!
(the subject is usually omitted, it's whatever you've just been talking about)

Kawaiku nai
[That is] not cute
'i' changes to 'ku' + nai for negative, used in anime a lot

Kawaiku naru
to become cute
'ku' functions as 'ly' in English, changing adjective to advert

Bonus point! Can you extrapolate how to say "not delicious" or "not expensive"
in Japanese? If so, you'll have taken your first step into a larger world.