Friday, January 05, 2007

Learning about how your brain works through Japanese, looking back on Japan since 1991, and services gaijin render to Japan

One thing I like about learning another language is the understanding you get of how your own brain works, not unlike reverse-engineering the firmware in a cool techno gadget. One area that interested me was analyzing how new words or grammatical concepts were internalized in my mind. Back in my SDSU days, I distinctly remember struggling to memorize the word "soto" (soh-toh), meaning "outside." I'd stare at the word for several seconds, saturating my short-term memory as I waited for my long-term memory to grab the word, but it just wasn't working. Next I wrote the word 20 times, always a good way to memorize information, and even created a mnemonic picture for myself, imagining a Chrysler DeSoto outside a window (stupid, but it worked). The final step in mastering the new concept was using it and getting feedback from Japanese speakers -- often negative feedback when I'd use the word in a spectacularly wrong way, but that's still okay. It's like your mind is a network of cobwebs, and in order to secure a piece of knowledge inside so it won't fall out you have to attach it to the network with threads from several different directions, which oddly is pretty much what happens on a synaptic level inside your brain.

Sometimes it's fun to look back on how things have changed since I came to Japan in 1991. The Tokyo land bubble had just burst but the shock hadn't trickled down very far yet, and businesses still seemed to be in "bubble mode" -- on my first trip to Tokyo Disneyland, for example, I went into an ice cream shop and was surprised to see no less than eleven employees waiting to serve me ice cream even though I was the only customer in the place. In retrospect, the off-and-on recession years of the 1990s were really good for Japan, forcing it to adopt a "reality based" approach to its economy which is bringing benefits now. When I first came here, Japan was a very closed place, truly an island nation, where common brands like Coca-Cola and Budweiser seemed downright exotic because there were so few other foreign products around, but there's a lot more choice now. By far the biggest change in life in Japan has been the arrival of that newfangled Internet thing you've been hearing so much about. Back in the day, it cost $4 a minute to call home, so I learned to talk fast, but in the age of broadband and Skype, Japan doesn't seem like such a far-away place anymore.


Like plover birds that clean crocodiles' teeth, gaijin in Japan serve many useful functions to our Japanese hosts. First and foremost, we notice things, and provide an important point of reference for Japan's all-too homogeneous society. When I first arrived in Japan, I was shocked to see cars on the roads with children playing inside and nary a child safety seat in sight -- carseats just weren't part of the national consciousness yet. No doubt the combined "frown power" of foreigners living here helped push lawmakers to enact Japan's first carseat law, which they finally did in 2000. Sometimes I find myself noticing little linguistic oddities in the Japanese language and sharing them with people around me, whether they want to hear about them or not. For example, the word sashimi (sliced raw fish) is written with characters that mean "stabbed meat" (刺し身), but if you've ever tried stabbing sashimi with chopsticks you'd get some funny looks. The word chawan means "rice bowl" yet is written with characters that actually mean "tea bowl" (茶碗), and no one thinks anything of this. A Japanese child who has lived abroad for a time and returned is a kikoku shijo (帰国子女), which means literally means "return-country girl-child" even though the term applies to boys, too. And the Japanese word for novel is written with characters that mean "short story" (小説). There's plenty of weirdness in English, of course, but because we aren't as aware of the individual meanings of parts of words, we don't notice them as much.

More pictures from "What we did on our Oshogatsu" (New Year's Day). Here we sit at my wife's uncle's house, drinking beer, eating good food and playing old Japanese card games. This is a rather easy game about a princess, a feudal lord and a Buddhist priest.

Then it was time to play some Hana Fuda, which my kids love.

The deck of Hana Fuda cards our uncle brought out was quite rare. Can you guess why? Hint, look at those three characters on the bottom of the package of cards. These cards were made by Nintendo, back when this was what they did.

No New Year's would be complete without mikan oranges. Since we had no mikan oranges, we ate deko-pon oranges, which are larger and sweeter. But they're not strictly speaking, mikans.

Battleship Ise

I was holding my MacBook Pro and my cell phone, and our uncle was so interested I showed him some of the stuff you could do with the Internet, namely Google Earth and Google itself. He wanted to look up some pictures of his old ship, the Ise, and we found some good ones. This was a hell of a ship, a battleship with three main batteries of guns, along with runways in the back that could accommodate 22 planes. See more pictures here.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Learning your own language by teaching ESL, funny English used in Japan, and all about chopsticks

One of the cool things about teaching ESL in Japan was learning my own language and its grammar. Language is based on rules which are internalized by speakers of that language, and part of the reason why New Jersey English or Osaka Japanese sounds odd to people who aren't from those places is, speakers from those areas are using a slightly different set of internal rules. Although we all learn some grammar in school (does everyone remember creating sentence diagrams?), the only way to really learn something is to teach it, to stand in the middle of a classroom with students who are each struggling with a different problem area and find a way to help them. After letting my students down by saying "uh, sure, I guess that sounds right" a few times (Japanese students hate teachers who do that), I buckled down and learned how to teach grammar. Did you know the difference between "the" (rhyming with "three") and "the" (rhyming with "uh")? The first is used before words starting with vowels ("thee end") and the latter before all other words ("thuh dog"), although it was news to me at the time. What do you do when a student asks why you have to say "a piece of chalk" when it's clearly something you could count like a pen or pencil. Or why pants and glasses are "pairs" when you can't separate them? Or why can we count fish individually, but the meat of a fish is non-count? Or why words like "sky" and "sea" appear plural sometimes (e.g. "the Friendly Skies" or "the seven seas")? One rule of English that threw me at the time was the long list of words with different intonations depending on whether they're being used as nouns or verbs (e.g. research the research, permit the fishing permit, present a present to someone, or rebel against the rebel base). Surprisingly, living in a foreign country has put me more in touch with my native language.

The Japanese learn a lot of English, six years if they graduate from high school and up to ten years if they attend a four-year university. Despite this, most Japanese don't really get that good at communicating in English for several reasons, including Japan's isolated position in the world (when 99% of the people around you are Japanese, there's not a lot of opportunity to practice) and the fact that English lessons are generally taught in Japanese for the exclusive purpose of passing tests. But just because the Japanese aren't generally fluent in the language doesn't mean there isn't a wealth of English phrases used on a daily basis here. When it's time for me to spell my wife at helping our son with his homework, for example, I'll say "baton touch" as I sit down, a common phrase used when taking over a duty. If my kids misbehave in public I remind them to think about the "TPO" ("time, place, occasion," although my son says it means "toilet paper office"). Anime fans know that when something good happens to a character, they're liable to shout "Lucky!" (LEH-kee!). When we go for a drive up in the mountains, we take the "I.C." (interchange, or freeway on-ramp), and when we get hungry we stop at a "P.A." (parking area) to eat. Some "English" words used here are downright unintelligible to native speakers, like "don-mai" (DOHN-my) which means "don't worry about it" and comes from "don't mind," or "back-ourai" (back-OH-rai), meaning "it's okay to back up a little further," from "back-alright."

There comes a time in the life of every gaijin when he or she inevitably encounters chopsticks, those devilish tools used for eating in most of Asia. Japanese people use chopsticks for nearly every meal, except for Western dishes like pasta and curry. Along with hiragana and the ABC's, learning to use chopsticks is something kids are taught by their parents at around the age of two or three, although some children still have yet to master chopstick use by the time they start preschool. This being Japan, it is exactly one "right" way to hold chopsticks, and it's not uncommon for a group of people to start critiquing the chopstick use of someone in the group. Foreigners living in Japan know that using chopsticks in public is cause for praise from older Japanese, although please note that countering by complimenting their use of a knife and fork is not generally appreciated. Although they're hard for Westerners to get used to at first, chopsticks are very easy to use, and when you master them it's not hard to pick that last grain of rice out of your bowl quite deftly. Incidentally, J-List carries a wide variety of chopsticks, from ones with rough patches at the tips for easy gripping of food to higher-end chopsticks that are a joy to hold and use, and even disposable chopsticks that are handy to have in the kitchen.

Do you have a website or blog? Would you like to help J-List brings its brand of Japanese pop culture to the world and get something back from us? If so, then we hope you'll join the Friends of J-List Affiliate Program, a cool system that lets you link to J-List products and receive commissions as cash or store credit (your option). Our system regularly receives praise from new members for being very easy to use, and since we host all graphics ourselves, there's not even any bandwidth cost to you. You can link to any product, category or search string on either the J-List or websites, with total control over what you show your readers. Effectively immediately, we're raising the commissions we pay, making this an even better opportunity for you to help others find J-List. See this page for more info and a link to join up!

This month's "H-Game of the Month" is one of my own favorites, Snow Drop, a dramatic story-centric PC dating-sim game by Will and female Japanese illustrator Shikage Nagi (who also created Little My Maid). A great game set in a winter wonderland, you play the sensitive Minoru, caught in a love triangle between your childhood friend Kyoka and a mysterious girl named Shizuka, who you're sure you've met before even though you can't remember her. What about the experienced Keika who keeps trying to get you to comfort her, or your troublesome younger sister? And what is the mysterious destiny that waits for you in the snowy Japanese mountains? Available at a great price this month only!

Happy New Year! On Jan. 1st we went to our local shrine to pray for happiness in 2007. These two girls were wearing kimonos, very beautiful.

We ended up coming back to the place with the Japanese torii arches again this year. While waiting in line (about an hour, and boy was it cold), I was compelled to make a joke about torii influenza (a play on bird flu in Japanese). No, it wasn't very funny.

Waiting, and drinking in Japan all around me.

Afterward it was time to hit the stalls, which sell everything from choco banana to cotton candy and tako-yaki (octopus balls). We got some yaki-soba (Japan's version of chow mein).

Here a girl makes our crepes for us. It amused me to see that she was a koal with tons of make-up on, yet was deftly preparing our crepes.

Not every aspect of Japan is attractive to foreigners. Here's the fried ika (squid) booth.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year from J-List, and some information about the Year of the Pig and something with the cool name of "Sexegenary Cycle"

Happy New Year from J-List! In Japanese, the phrase is akemashite omedeto gozaimasu (ah-kay-mah-shtay oh-meh-deh-TOH go-ZA-EE-mahs), literally "congratulations on opening the new year." We hope 2007 will be a year of peace, prosperity and happiness for everyone!

In the same way that much of Western culture comes from ancient Rome and Greece, Japan was greatly influenced by China, and many elements of their society can be traced back to the Middle Kingdom. For two millennia Japan used the old Chinese Lunar calendar to record time, and they inherited the Chinese Zodiac system as part of that tradition. There are twelve animals in the so-called Chinese Sexegenary Cycle, which rotate through year after year. 2006 was the Year of the Dog, for example, and 2007 is the Year of the Pig, and various characteristics are attributed to people born in each animal year. For example, those born in a Pig Year are supposedly honest, straightforward and sometimes aloof around others. Each time the Chinese Zodiac cycles around to your year (at the ages of 11, 23, 35 and so on) its another landmark in your life.

There's an interesting story of how the Chinese Zodiac came to be. On the day of the New Year the Gods (or Buddha, depending on which version you read) declared a race among thirteen animals to come and offer New Year's Greetings. The Ox knew he was the slowest animal, so he started out before the others. The Rat noticed this and hopped on his back, jumping off at the last minute to claim first place. The Ox came in second, followed by the fleet Tiger. The Rabbit was next, with the kind-hearted Dragon behind, who was delayed by helping the Rabbit across the river. The Horse ran along then, but the Snake slithered between his legs and startled him, beating him in the race. The Sheep, Monkey and Rooster were working as a team to get across the river, and arrived next. Then came the Dog, delayed because he stopped to take a bath along the way, with the Pig coming in last -- he'd gotten confused and climbed the wrong mountain, forcing him to backtrack. The thirteenth animal was the Cat, who had forgotten what day the race was held and asked his friend the cunning Rat, who told him the wrong date, which is why there's no Year of the Cat, and why cats hate mice today.

What's that clicking sound? It's the sound of another J-List customer buying the second-to-last copy of the cool 2007 Japanese calendar you've had your eye on. Japan is a very seasonal place, with different activities held at different times of year, and right now is Calendar Season. Why not spend a few minutes browsing our amazing selection of 2007 anime, JPOP, sexy idol and other calendars from Japan, or our many other products?

J-List is taking the day off today, of course, but we'll be back tomorrow to
process everyone's orders quickly and efficiently. Feel free to browse our
extensive selection of wacky and wonderful things from Japan
. Thanks!

More random pics from Guam. We thought this burglar warning was worth snapping a shot of.

Guamian bookmobile.

Yes, this is a yak.

The kids, playing by an old Spanish fort.

The dolphins were fun to play with, but I wanted them to stop the boat, dump a bunch of food in the water and let us frolic with them. The captain explained that the dolphins were actually kind of shy and didn't like people.

There was some bad renditions of Japanese and Chinese food in Guam.

Sitting in the drive thru in McDonald's, we looked up to see about 100 of these weird little lizards (Geckos, someone told us) crawling on the outside of the building and threatening to fall into our convertible car.

In keeping with section 7 of the American Expat Code, we made sure to bring back plenty of Taco Bell sauce, which is pretty darned good on the Twisters you get at "Kentucky."

Daughter Rina hides the McDonald's food she's smuggled in to Taco Bell.

The other reason Guam is good for us, we can buy American cereal!

I know the evil food producers of the West have put corn syrup in everything (replacing sugar, which may be partially responsible for everyone getting so fat), but I'd never seen it for sale as-is.

We made our Japanese-style Christmas Cake on Dec 25th. It was good, although it didn't feel much like Christmas.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

All about New Year's Eve and Oshogasu in Japan, the big Kohaku TV event, and a New Year's Card from us!

Hello again from J-List, where the country is preparing to say goodbye to the current year and ring in the new one. Dec. 31st is a busy day as people rush to get everything ready for the New Year, buying food to make traditional dishes called "osetchi" that are made to keep for several days so housewives can take a break from cooking during New Years, and buying various decorations for the home. It's customary to eat Japanese soba (buckwheat) noodles on the last day of the year, believed to help everyone enjoy long lives, and December 31st is the busiest day for restaurants that serve noodles. But the most important activity that takes place on New Year's Eve is watching Kohaku, the Red and White Song Battle, an annual live show put that's been put on by NHK every year since 1951 in which female singers (the red team) battle male singers (the white team) to see which side can put on the more extravagant performances. The Kohaku show is "the" music event of the year, a veritable institution in Japan's music scene, and virtually every top star will be there from Ayumi Hamasaki to Kumi Koda to Orange Range and enka great Saburo Kitajima (I always make sure to catch his slot). After the Kohaku show ends at 11:45 pm, NHK shows solemn images of people making their way to beautiful Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples and Christian churches (and maybe a mosque?) to do hatsu-mode (ha-tsu MOH-day), the first prayer for good luck and happiness of the New Year, overlaid with the sound of beautiful bells until the display flashes "0:00," letting you know the New Year has arrived.

New Year's Decorations

January 1st is a day to sit home and relax, reading through the New Year's Cards that arrived and eating mikan oranges while putting your legs inside the kotatsu to keep warm. Or you could turn on the TV and watch the New Year's Day Marathon, which through another inconceivable coincidence is held in our city, with a route that takes the runners right by our house (we get on TV a lot, considering how boring our city is). In the afternoon it's off to the Shinto shrine to pray for good luck, health and happiness. This year my wife is yaku-doshi, an unlucky year according to some Japanese tradition or another, so we'll probably be skipping our usual Shinto shrine (the one with 108 cool Japanese arches that you walk through to get to the shrine itself) and visiting one that specializes in neutralizing bad luck years. Then we'll go visit our favorite relatives, my wife's uncle, the one who fought in World War II and saw the Yamato sliding out of port as it went off for its final mission. I love to get him to talk about the old days when my kids are there so they can know how much things have changed.

(Speaking of New Year's Cards, here's ours. Print it out, secure in the knowledge that you got yours before anyone in Japan did, as we were late getting them out the door.)

It's the end of another year, our tenth since starting J-List, and looking back, I couldn't be more pleased. We've brought a slice of Japan to hundreds of thousands of people through my "Postcards from Japan" emails, and shipped tons of cool products to those not fortunate enough to live in this fascinating country. We've encouraged many to learn more about Japan, either through our Japanese language textbooks and other study aids or through many more indirect means. We've always loved the slogan "World Peace Through Shared Popular Culture," and we like to think that our efforts to make Japan more accessible to people all over the world. J-List plans to make 2007 our best year ever, with lots of new products to delight you and help you come closer to Japan. And so we say from the bottoms of our hearts, kotoshi mo yoroshiku, which roughly means "thanks in advance for your friendship and support this year, also."

This was our day to go see some waterfalls in Guam, no doubt billed as the Niagara of Guam in some Japanese tour guide, and see the famous Yokoi Cave, where "Hero Yokoi Shoichi Soldier" waited 28 damned years after the end of World War II, sure that the war was still going on.

This is a picture of his cave. Bloody guy was smart, using bamboo in his cave to absorb moisture, making a chimney for smoke to exit.

Commemorative plaque.

A beautiful Buddhist shrine someone had created, in memory of Mr. Yokoi and his two comrades who stayed with him for many years, but who died before being discovered.

Here is the cave. Pretty funky to see it for reals.

Another picture.

The other highlight of the place (other than some rides that were so laughable we didn't go near them) was a little history museum that showed the history of Guam, from the visit by Magellan, abuse by Spain for hundreds of years, the island's becoming a U.S. territory after the Spanish-American War, invasion by the Japanese, and re-invasion by the U.S. in 1944. Dig this seppuku action.

They had a good gift shop. I was compelled to get his for my son.

And for the record, the Japanese are bad at English, but other folks are bad at Japanese. This sign is terrible, advertising "Ice Cake" (whatever that is) and mis-writing the word for shaved ice. Course the English was universally bad here too.