Friday, November 17, 2006

A very Buddhist way of looking at your house pets, how to beat the Chinese at kanji, and thoughts on Japan's future

Pets are a part of our household in Japan, and currently we've got a dog (faithful old Sakura) and two cats (black-and-white Mix-chan and all-black Kuro). My wife once remarked to me, "It's important to keep pets in the home. They die in place of family members when the family runs into bad luck." My eyes become little black points like an anime character's at this, as I struggled to understand her statement. She was talking about the concept of migawari (me-gah-wah-ree), literally meaning "substitute for" or "sacrifice for." When our dog Chibi passed away earlier this year, the general consensus among my Japanese family was that he had died in order to protect someone in the family from injury or worse, and everyone loved him a little more for that. Originally a ninja term meaning to dress up a tree to look like a person so an enemy would think it was you and attack it mistakenly, the word refers to anything that takes bad luck in your place, protecting you as it does so. There are many kinds of objects believed to serve as "lightning rods" for bad fortune, including various types of omamori good luck charms or Buddhist statues -- we've even got a cool migawari charm up on the site today.

According to SF writer Isaac Asimov, the only constant is change, continuing change, inevitable change. Sometimes this change can take decades to become visible, and other times you can see trends happen right outside your window. The long-standing tradition of Japan trailing U.S. society by 10-20 years is continuing as the country faces the same kind of pressures on its manufacturing economy that the U.S. started experiencing in the early 1990s. The reasons are similar -- the high cost of building something in Japan leads to more companies outsourcing products to China as industries shift and change. One of the landmarks of the nearby city of Maebashi was a giant Daihatsu factory in the center of town -- they manufactured those cute midget-sized vehicles I used to see driving around on the SDSU college campus. The factory was closed last year, though, and in its place sprang up a new shopping district with supermarkets, clothing stores and restaurants, all of which seemed to mirror some of the changes that the U.S. has gone through over the last decade or two, moving from manufacturing to a service-based economy, and not always smoothly, either. Happily, although there is a trend towards larger, more convenient stores in Japan today, consumers are more concerned with overall quality of service rather than just price, and there are as yet no giant national retail chains that wield an unfair amount of influence over the economy, hopefully staving off "Wal-martification."

Establishing a rival relationship with someone is a smart way to motivate yourself, and I put this tactic to good use while studying Japanese. I had a Chinese friend who was taking level 1 of the Japanese Language Ability Test (JLPT) at the same time as me, and I made up my mind that I was going to beat her score. This was quite a task, since Chinese people have a natural affinity for kanji, the Chinese having invented them and all. But although my friend could read any Japanese sentence and get most of the meaning out of it, she was thrown off by the fact that there are two readings for most Japanese kanji, the Chinese one (based on how the character was pronounced in the 6th century when kanji came to the country), and the local Japanese one. The interplay between these two ways to read a character is subtle, like the Japanese people themselves, and it can be quite difficult to know how to pronounce a character in a given situation. In the end, I beat my friend by ten points, quite an accomplishment for a "white boy" foreigner.

We're having fun around here at J-List, playing with the new item we've posted to the site today: Moe (mo-EH) Soundrop, keychains that play super-cute anime voices when you press them. The latest step in the evolution of Japan's culture of "moe," roughly translatable as the burning, happy feeling you get when you see your favorite anime character, there are eight archetypal cute girls represented in the series, from cat girl to maid to younger sister who calls you "Oniichan!" and more. The recorded voices in the capsule toy keychains sound great, the batteries are replaceable, and best of all, they're very affordable, so you can get the girls you'd like to hear or pick up the whole set.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Interesting careers open to gaijin in Japan, getting used to strange words, and do you know what year it is?

I get a lot of mail from people who'd like to live in Japan someday, and I do my best to offer what guidance I can. Far and away, the most common job open to naive English speakers in Japan is teacher of English as a Second Language. Possible job avenues in this area include the national ESL school chains like AEON, GEOS and ECC; private-contract schools of varying sizes; jobs teaching English to employees of companies; more structured positions at high schools or universities; and the JET program. While it wasn't always a walk in the park, I did enjoy the years I spent teaching ESL before starting J-List, and I'd recommend teaching in Japan to anyone as long as they knew the limitations of the job (a four-year degree is required, and remember that "taught English in Japan" isn't always the best way to fill out one's resume). Still, I am invariably asked what other career paths are open to foreigners here. Other than the usual options you might think of -- translation, editing and checking of already translated works, becoming cast members at Tokyo Disneyland -- there is another up-and-coming career choice, that of a fake minister to perform weddings. While many Japanese get married with traditional Shinto ceremonies, Western-style weddings are still the most popular, and our prefecture has dozens of beautiful Western-influenced wedding halls, such as The Georgian House, which recreates an 18th century British manor so that couples can try to capture that elusive "Princess Diana" feeling at their wedding. In order for a white wedding to feel authentic, you just have to have a real-live foreigner there to say the nuptials. I ran into a friend of mind a few months ago, and he told me that he had almost given up teaching in lieu of his more profitable career as a wedding minister. At around $150-200 per ceremony, it's good work if you can get it, I suppose.

(Remember that I do have an article I've been writing over the past decade giving my now-oh-so-out-of-date advice on teaching ESL. See it here.)

W coffee

You've been in Japan too long when you see a sign for a "mansion gallery" and know immediately that it's a building built to allow prospective buyers of high-rise condominiums (called "mansions" here) to see what the insides are like before making a purchase. Like every country, the Japanese take words and change them to fit their needs, so that sometimes a native speaker might not know what the original meaning was. For some reason only the Japanese can know, the letter "W" represents the idea of "double," and it's common for companies to use this letter in their product naming to communicate benefits, like the canned coffee I saw recently that promised "W" (double) the delicious coffee taste. The English word "service" often means "free" here, and if the owner of a ramen shop you're eating at uses the word as he hands you a free drink, you'll know what it means. Some other unique uses of English words including referring to screwdrivers as "plus" or "minus," labeling young people who decline to find full-time jobs "freeters," and one that threw me the first time I heard it, "number" for the license plate of a car.

I've talked before about how it's possible in Japan to lose touch with what year it is currently. In addition to the standard Western calendar, the Japanese have a unique system of counting years based on the reign of the current emperor. It's currently the 18th year of the Heisei era (Heisei means "Accomplishment of Peace," written 平成), which began when Emperor Hirohito died and was succeeded by his son, Akihito, so this year is Heisei 18. Before Heisei was the long Showa era (昭和, "Enlightened Peace," from 1925 to 1988), before that was Taisho (大正, "Great Righteousness," 1912-1924), Meiji (明治, "Enlightened Rule," 1868-1911), and so on. When you live in Japan, you quickly learn various dates in the Japanese system, since you need it to fill out forms -- I was born in Showa 43, e.g. 1968, my kids were born in Heisei 7 and 8, and so on. No doubt the Universal Century system of dates in the Gundam universe, which starts when humans first colonize space, is inspired by this system. It'd be kind of cool if we had names for Presidential eras, although we'd spend so much time arguing over what to use.

Monday, November 13, 2006

American uniqueness vs. Japanese uniformity, a new debate on "beautiful Japan" and the little joys of living in Japan

Just as Americans are accustomed to thinking of our country as a union of semi-soverign states, each with its own unique history and traditions, one of the hallmarks of Japan is "uniformity." During my bachelor days I travelled around the country quite a bit, going from cold but vibrant Hokkaido in the north, through the barren Northern Honshu area where sad enka songs were born, and all the way down to modern, bustling Hiroshima, and one thing that has always stood out for me was how similar many thing were. Roads, signs, telephone poles, the way schools are constructed, all seem to be following one master blueprint, with little or no variation between regions. There are exceptions of course -- the cold climate of Northern Japan requires sturdier architecture to withstand the heavy snowfall compared to the rest of the country -- but by and large many aspects of life in Japan are remarkably similar whether you're in Tokyo or Kyushu or wherever. The educational experience is uniform, too, with less variation across regions than I experienced in the seventh grade when I move from a school in Maryland to one in California. I was reminded of this fact when I picked up an item we're posting today, Re-Ment's Pucchi Elementary School series, detailed miniatures of objects found in schools in Japan, from the ubiquitous Japanese "randosel" backpack to textbooks and bento boxes those yellow hats that first graders wear so cars can see them. It's amazing that the company can create a set of miniature toys that virtually every Japanese will recognize and feel nostalgic over, no matter what part of the country they're from.

It's fun to live in Japan. You get to enjoy many good things, like the warm feeling of hot canned coffee on a cold train platform, or the thrill of finding a girl's phone number scrawled on the back of a chopstick wrapper after a night at an izakaya bar. Just as a Hemmingway aficionado might get a thrill out of retracing the road from Paris to Pamplona, it can be fun for those gaijin of the otaku persuasion to visit some of the locations in their favorite anime series. Tokyo's a good place for this, since the images of the city are well-represented in anime and manga, from Tokyo Tower (a regular fixation of the CLAMP artists) to the famous "Scramble Intersection" to iconic buildings like Shibuya 109 or the inverted pyramid at Tokyo Big Sight. I remember my first trip to Tokyo back in 1991, when I stood before the famous Studio Alta giant TV (giant for 1991, anyway), realizing I had finally arrived in Japan for real. Last weekend I went with a friend up to Karuizawa, a nice mountain town that happens to be the setting for the outstanding series "Please, Twins!" It was a lot of fun, roaming around the town and seeing what places from the anime series we happened to come across.

One of the first words of Japanese I learned was utsukushii (oo-tsoo- koo-SHEE), which means "beautiful" (and the kanji, 美しい, is also quite nice to look at). It's a word that's on a lot of lips in Japan these days, thanks to Shinzo Abe, who declared in his first speech as Japan's 90th Prime Minister that the goal of his cabinet was to create "a beautiful country, Japan." This has gotten everyone from J-Bloggers to pundits on television debating just what a "beautiful country, Japan" should be. Beautiful, as in cleaner, and respecting the natural environment more? Beautiful as in, a society where people value kindness to others, and swear off cynicism? A country that holds on to its culture and history? I've always been impressed with the way Japanese can debate subjects in a lively way, and many TV shows are built around this concept, taking, say, a panel of lawyers or doctors or politicians and throwing out topics for them to debate and discuss on camera, even daring to openly debate weather Japan should arm itself with nuclear weapons to counter North Korea. I hope the new debate on a how the new "beautiful country, Japan" can be realized produces some good suggestions for the future.