Friday, January 19, 2007

Going to ge a haircut and learning about Japanese culture instead, when Japanese people must become bold, and using songs to master Japanese

People talk about convergence all the time, of things coming together in a more convenient form. Living in Japan, one of my favorite examples of convergence are hot spring baths (onsen) that offer other services too, like a restaurant where we can eat and enjoy a cold beer, a "massage corner" where we can say goodbye to the week's stress, and a barber shop where my kids and I can cut our hair before going to the baths to get clean. A few weeks ago my son and I were about to get our hair cut, and the barber asked how he wanted his hair to look. My son has a bit of a shy streak, and he looked over expecting me to answer for him, but I told him, "Speak up and tell the man how you want your hair cut. If you don't open your mouth and tell people what you want, you'll never get it." For some reason this statement was interesting to the staff in the barber shop, since Japanese kids are never told to be assertive or specify their own choices in a direct way, and soon we were all involved in a discussion on the differences between raising kids in Japan and the U.S.

Yes, seen from Japan, America is definitely a country where a person has to be very assertive if they want to get anywhere in life, and one of the things Japanese who study in the States must do is make a conscious effort to become more strong-willed. This "acquired boldness" can take many forms, such as learning to express opinions to others that would probably be kept to one's self in Japan and realizing that there's no shame in being more focused on yourself than on the overall group. My son got a lesson in comparative culture studies when, while attending a summer day camp in San Diego one year, the staff forgot to tell him where the lunches had been put so he could get his. If he'd spoken up and asked where his lunch was, the staff would have told him and all would have been well, but he sat there expecting someone to notice that he had no lunch -- which would have probably been the case in Japan -- so he went hungry all day. My project to get my son to assert himself more seems to be getting some results. At his special English elementary school, the teachers organized a weekly basketball club during recess for the kids. My son prefers dodgeball, though, and so he and some of his friends formed an official commission of kids to present their case to the teachers explaining why they wanted to have a choice between the two sports. It was a big success, and the new school dodgeball club starts next week.

One of the most popular categories of products at J-List are Japanese study-related items like kanji cards, hiragana practice notebooks and the best-selling Genki textbook series, and this gives me a warm feeling since I love to promote interest in the language whenever I can. Learning Japanese is a very challenging endeavor since it's so different from Western languages, but even a little bit of Japanese study opens new doors of understanding about the country. Although I generally recommend studying at a four-year university with a study-in-Japan option for serious students, there are lots of innovative ways to make Japanese study work, such as reading manga, developing an interest in "J-Dorama," playing import games in Japanese or getting into J-Pop/J-Rock. One of the best methods I found for learning Japanese was to memorize songs for karaoke, writing out the lyrics you want to learn several times. The act of writing the song aids memorization and when you've learned it, it's actually possible to retrieve words from memory by singing the song back to yourself, which helped me on more than one test in college. If this sounds like a good idea to you, I recommend the new book Songs for Learning Japanese, a textbook with two CDs that present some great popular and traditional Japanese songs for you to learn.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Learning about the brain through Madagascar, how names work in kanji in Japan, and a bizarre murder in Tokyo

We have a rule at our house: in order to help our kids become bilingual, we only watch DVDs from the U.S., and never bother with Japanese versions of American films released here. Right now my kids are in love with the movie Madagascar, laughing at the antics of Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Melman the Giraffe and Gloria the Hippopotamus at least three times per day, as children are wont to do. My kids learned English in a very "natural" way, spending summers in the U.S., interacting with me and watching movies in English -- quite different from the memorizing of grammar and vocabulary that Japanese students must do. I've noticed that the two languages sometimes aren't as "cross-mapped" in my kids' brains as in my own, and it's quite common for them to know a word in English but have no idea what it is in Japanese, or vice-versa. I sometimes hold "who can translate this word the fastest" competitions when we're going somewhere in the car (trying to beat one's sibling at something is a great natural motivator), and it's interesting to see how difficult the act of moving a word or phrase from one language to the other is for them, even though they're perfectly functional in both languages. Recently I saw a news article that said that bilinguals who use two languages on a daily basis have a lower chance of getting dementia in old age due to increased blood flow through the brain. Hopefully we're doing some long-range good for our kids as we raise them to be a part of both countries.

Any loss of life is a tragedy, and the murder of a human being is especially bad. The number of homicides each year in Japan is low -- around 0.9 per 100,000 compared with 7.4 in the U.S. -- and out here in semi-rural Gunma murders are so rare they're talked about for weeks when one occurs. Despite the comparative rarity of homicides here, somehow it seems that the number of uniquely tragic or bizarre killings in Japan is much higher, at least subjectively. Currently Japan has been galvanized by the story of Kaori Mihashi, a 32-year-old Tokyo woman who murdered her allegedly abusive husband by hitting him with a wine bottle while he slept. The body was too heavy for her to lift, so she had the bright idea of taking a saw and carving him up into sections, depositing his torso, legs and head in different parts of the city (they're still looking for his arms, poor guy). She tried to throw suspicion off of herself by filing a missing person's report and replying to emails from her husband's mobile phone as if he were still alive, but the authorities found holes in her story and eventually uncovered the truth.

It's interesting to observe how kanji functions in society on a daily basis here. In written Japanese, kanji characters are used to write the major nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in a sentence, with hiragana characters added for grammatical elements like the markers for subject and object, past tense, and so on. Names are also generally written using kanji characters, and just as there are alternate spellings for many names in English, there are many choices for writing a name like "Takeshi" (健志、武志、武史、丈志、丈史, たけし, well, you get the idea). When you learn someone's name, it's important to learn how to write it properly, and it's the height of rudeness to write someone's name with the wrong characters, especially in a business setting. (J-List's Yasu once changed suppliers because they wrote his name wrong on an invoice.) Part of becoming functionally literate with kanji characters involves learning to describe the kanji for a person or place name to someone over the phone, referring to other words that are written with that character, describing the radical (the part of a kanji used to organize it in a dictionary), and so on. The part of our city J-List is located it in is called Hashie-cho (波志江町, Hashie Town), a rather rare place name, and I've had to describe how to write this address so often I've got it down pat. "The 'ha' is 'nami' (波, wave), 'shi' is 'kokorozasu' (志す, meaning to aim for a goal or take on a challenge), and the 'e' (eh) is the first character from 'Edo' (江戸, the old name of Tokyo)."

Monday, January 15, 2007

Peter's Unified Theory of Japan meets Great Britain, going to the beach in January, and understanding Japan through its bicycles

Part of Peter's Unified Theory of Japan is that the Land of the Rising Sun has a lot in common with Great Britain. Both are island nations with similar land areas and unique cultures that were able to grow for centuries without outside interference. Both have made expert use of naval technologies to build empires in the past, and both exert a huge amount of cultural influence on the world comparative to their small sizes. Also, neither nation seems to consider itself to be a part of its respective continent, and sometimes it seems that Japan would be happier being part of Europe than of Asia. The strange connection between Japan and Great Britain was not lost on the members of the Iwakura Embassy of 1871, a group of ambassadors from the new Meiji Government who visited Europe and the U.S. to make observations about how Japan should proceed with modernization. Partly as a result of their recommendations, Japan consciously emulated Great Britain in many ways, including adopting a British-style Parliament and Prime Minister system.

But as much as Japan secretly wishes it were part of Europe, it's very much an Asian nation, and that means...bicycles. Yes, bicycles are a popular way to get around in Japan, with people from all walks of life using them to get where they want to go, including businessmen in expensive tailored suits, which is always amusing to see. I happened to look at the bicycle section of our local home center the other day, and was interested to see the latest trends in two-wheeled transportation. The basic Japanese bicycle is a rather kakko warui (kah-KOH WAH-ROO-ee; ugly, uncool) design popular with middle-aged women that's affectionately called the "Mama-Chari" (from "mother's chariot," don't ask me why), which sports a large basket for bringing home the day's groceries. There are other types of bicycles too, from mountain bikes to fold-up bikes you can take on a train to electric-assist jobs, but if you want to get something really kakko ii (kah-KOH EE; cool, stylish) you should go for a bicycle with a spiffy corporate logo printed on the side. There are plenty available in stores, including bikes sold under brands like Jeep Wrangler, Jaguar, PT Cruiser and something called "Chevrolet Chevy." Don't want a bicycle with a car logo on it? How about a United Colors of Benetton bicycle, a bike for ladies with the famous "ELLE" logo on it, or...Wimbledon? Yes, there's an official Wimbledon bike, complete with their slogan: "The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club." I was especially partial to the Zippo-branded bicycles I saw, which apparently combine the fine engineering of the world's most popular lighter with fast-switching gears by Shimano. Since I don't smoke but like Zippo lighters, maybe this is a good compromise for me.

Just because we don't live in San Diego doesn't mean we can't catch some waves in January. Over the weekend we took the kids to Caribbean Beach, a massive-scale wave pool that simulates a sandy beach, located about as far from the sea as you can get on Japan's main island of Honshu. Besides the wave pool, there were water slides, several Jacuzzis and a fun "flowing pool" that continuously pushes you in one direction, kind of like an "It's a Small World" attraction that you get to swim in. The facility was built by the city of Kiryu, right next to the municipal garbage incinerator, allowing the energy generated from the burning of garbage to be put to good use heating the various pools and keeping the cost down. Like Japan's Postal Savings Accounts (which effectively form the world's largest bank, in terms of deposits) and its government-run Kampo life insurance system, public projects like this heated pool are one more example of how Japan's government loves to meddle in areas that are generally considered the domain of private industry in most other countries. I'm not complaining about a fun pool to use, of course, but for every well-conceived project like Caribbean Beach there are all too many failures. For example, high in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture there's a beautiful resort hotel that was built with money from Postal Savings Accounts, which people can stay at cheaply. Not only did the coming of the hotel depress the commercial hotels in the area with unfair competition, though, it's also nearly always empty, a sprawling resort with no guests despite the staggering cost to build it.

Valentine's Day is not far off, so we're posting a reminder in case you wanted to do February 14 Japanese-style this year. Valentine's Day in Japan is a day when women give chocolate to boyfriends, husbands or fathers to show their love or say "thank you" for their hard work and support. Often women will go to great lengths to make hand-made chocolates, and stores stock many types of chocolate molds, decorations and other tools to help them in their goal. In addition to a selection of chocolate molds that we've posted today, J-List is loaded to the gills with great chocolate snacks from Japan, the perfect way to show your feelings this year. Why not browse our great snack section now?




This is a silly thing to have on your bike.



This is pretty silly, too.



Do other countries have these? It's a light that runs from the friction of the front wheel. It slows you down so people usually turn them off, making riding at night more dangerous.



Here's the bike I liked, the Zippo bicycle. What will they think of next?



Outside of Cainz Home I encountered a perfect replica of K.I.T.T. I've lived in Japan so long that I'm used to stuff like this, but this is weird, right? I mean, you wouldn't drive Knight Rider's car in the U.S., right?



The front even does the "Cylon" thing.