Saturday, February 10, 2007

A Yakuza gang war in Tokyo, my trip to the concrete jungle of Tokyo, and how the wisdom of China is at work in Japan today

Japan has a reputation for being a peaceful place with very little in the way of violence, giant monsters emerging from the sea and smashing Tokyo notwithstanding. This happy image was somewhat shaken this week when a minor gang war broke out in Tokyo, with several shots fired back and forth and one gang boss killed. Japan's Yakuza have been around for centuries, and usually go about their business in a very orderly fashion, with the major groups -- Yamaguchi-gumi in Osaka and the smaller Sumiyoshi-kai and Inagawa-kai in Tokyo -- respecting each others territory. This harmony was broken when some members of the 3rd-ranked Inagawa Group of Tokyo allowed the traditional protection money collected from restaurants and bars in Roppongi to go to the Yamaguchi group, which amounted to the Osaka mafia muscling in on territory that wasn't traditionally theirs. Some arrests have been made so hopefully we've seen the last bit of fighting. The Yakuza like to pretend they're modern day Robin Hood anti-heroes, but their various criminal enterprises, including ultra-high interest loans and protection scams, cause great harm to people. The term Yakuza is a phonetic play on the numbers 8, 9 and 3, which add up to 20, representing the worst possible hand you can get in a traditional card game played since the Edo Period.

Yesterday I went to Tokyo on business, just a 45-minute Shinkansen ride away. Whenever I visit Japan's capital I experience a brief period of localized culture shock as I adjust to having that much concrete and steel around me, and having my own personal space cut down to a fraction of what it is in our home prefecture of Gunma. My eyes always go a little wide when I see the, er, extremely beautiful and fashionable women riding trains or crossing the famous "scramble intersection" in Shibuya, so different from the more down-to-earth females back home that it seems to my eyes like the difference between regular television and HD-TV. Even the men are image-conscious in Tokyo, reading magazines like Smart or Myojo and no doubt being subtly influenced by the endless stream of boytoy "talents" from Johnny's Entertainment, Japan's most successful talent management company. Passing through Shinjuku, I spied one extremely fashionable youth who was busy playing with a pink Nintendo DS, and it occurred to me that in Japan today men and women are in open competition to see which set can be more fashionable and stylish -- an odd phenomenon that probably wouldn't happen in the U.S., unless I've really been away too long.

In a very real sense, the culture of Japan flows from China, just as everything in the West from laws and courts to roads originally came from ancient Rome and Greece. China is so much a part of Japan's history that you couldn't express ideas without thinking in kanji, the pictographs that Japan imported along with Buddhism in the 6th century A.D. (this is in contrast to the two Koreas, who have largely decoupled their language from kanji in favor of the "purity" of the home-grown hangul writing system). Just as elements of classical languages survive in our speech ad infinitum, the Chinese language pops up in Japanese from time to time, for example in the poetic phrase shimen-soka (she-men-SOH-kah), which means "being surrounded by enemies on all sides and totally betrayed." The wisdom of China also survives in the form of proverbs that the Japanese have imported, such as the old standby ningen banji saiou-ga-uma, which means "All human affairs are like Saiou's horse." This refers to an old Chinese story about a man named Saiou whose horse ran away, making everyone say how unfortunate he was. "How do you know this is a bad thing?" he asked. His horse came back, bringing another horse this time, and when people congratulated him on his good luck, he asked, "How do you know this is a good thing?" He then or bad happens, no one can say for sure if it is truly a good or bad thing in the end. It's kind of like marrying an 80-year-old billionaire -- in the end, who can say if it will be a good thing or not?

Today is February 9th, which according to the usually-incomprehensible- to-gaijin Japanese numbering system is "Meat Day" (Niku no Hi, 肉の日), since 2/9 can be read ni ku meaning meat in Japanese (refer to Yakuza, above). Today is also my wife's birthday, so we're off to enjoy Korean Barbecue, a popular delicacy in Japan. Have a nice weekend!

Some random images. I have in my home a brand new Magic Window from 1973, which set me back a bit on eBay. Just thought I'd show it to you.

Made and printed in the U.S.A. Pretty spiffy.

Not a great picture of my setup at home (which will be upgraded to a Mac Pro if Apple would *deign* to get a new machine out for us). I've never seen these Japanese notebook computer racks that hold your laptop upright for cooling purposes. They're quite nice to use.


Kicking back at the family restaurant we go to a lot for lunch, called Joyful, a name which somehow makes me happy. This is the steak part of the menu.

Of course, at a cheap place like this a "steak" is always a "hamburg steak."

Of course, the highlight of the manu is, Yuko Ogura appearing in it. Don't ask me, I don't know what she has to do with Hamburg Steak.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The reality of "learning Japanese," Japan's special relationship with garbage, and the history of the Japanese Postal Mark

One thing I've heard from foreigners who have recently come to Japan -- and which I've probably uttered myself a long time ago -- is the phrase "And then, when I've learned Japanese..." This is amusing to me since you never actually "learn" any language in the sense of suddenly becoming completely competent in all aspects of its use. A foreigner living in Japan naturally stakes out the important areas of his life or work and attains working fluency in those areas, usually not bothering with aspects of the language that will probably never touch him. After four years of study in college and a decade and a half of living in Japan I'm able to function in a wide variety of situations here, including business settings, dealing with family and friends, ordering a pizza and giving directions to my house, attending funerals and weddings and so on...but if I were suddenly thrust into the world of a banker, a politician or a daiku carpenter who builds houses using traditional Japanese techniques, I'd be completely lost. Similarly, my wife is perfectly functional in English in most cases, yet when its time for the CSI broadcast on NHK, I know she'll flip the TV into Japanese mode since the show lies outside of her established linguistic boundaries. As your life meanders on and the way you use language changes, naturally your language skills will change too. When I became a father, I realized that I didn't have a clue how to speak Japanese "baby talk," so I started that aspect of my language education. In the process of running a Japanese company I've had to learn how to read contracts in Japanese to make sure I didn't accidentally sign away my house or something, and now I'm quite comfortable with most Japanese legalese.

Every morning my car greets me and gives me my daily "What day is today?" trivia point, informing me that today is Ice Cream Day (May 9), Natto Day (July 10), Haiku Day (August 19) and UFO Day (June 24), and so on, and every time I get in my car I never know what wacky and esoteric new information I'll be presented with. Tomorrow is "Japanese Postal Mark Day," celebrating the establishment of the unique symbol used to indicate a place where you can find postal services here, which looks like the marriage of a capital T with an equals sign, or like the katakana symbol for te (テ). The Japanese post office was established in 1871, just four years into the reign of the new Emperor Meiji that proved to be a watershed moment in the modernization of the country. In 1887, as part of a national revitalization effort, the Postal Service announced that the English letter "T" would be the new symbol of the Post Office of Japan. Ten days later, the ministry sheepishly admitted that they had mis-read their own symbol, and the actual symbol of Japan's postal organization was the one that's in use today. The "postal mark" symbol is officially registered with the International Standards Organization and is included in all Japanese fonts on personal computers.

One of the first words a foreigner who comes to live in Japan learns is gomi, the most common term for garbage in Japanese. The reason is that Japan -- a nation that ranks 63rd in the world in terms of land area yet 10th in terms of population -- must understandably take some special measures to make sure its trash situation doesn't get out of hand. As newly arrived gaijin must learn, trash can be disposed of on designated days, and must be separated into various categories (burnables on Tuesday and Friday, non-burnables on Wednesday, organic trash every other week) and disposed of in approved bags you can buy in stores in that city. Although the words "environmentally conscious" don't spring to mind when you think of Japan, with its custom of covering the sides of mountains in concrete on the off chance there might be a rock slide someday, the country has been recycling for decades as one way of reducing the amount of trash generated by society. When you buy shampoo or bathroom cleaner, you're presented with a choice: a regular plastic container, or a cheaper refill-only package that lets you refill the bottle you've already got at home and cut down on what you throw away. There are many laws on the books requiring that you take special steps to safely dispose of old cars, computers and televisions, and it's common for home electronics stores to take away your old stuff for free when you buy something new, to save customers from the hassle of paying a recycling company money to take care of their old junk.

Since I'm talking about shampoo, here you go, some pictures of shampoo. Yes, I did get some rather odd looks taking these, thanks.

I've often thought this would be a good name for shampoo... This is one of the refill only packages, of course.

Another one. This one is Nuance Airy, whatever that is.

Wash your hair with black, sooty charcoal, yes!

From across the room, Tommy Lee Jones was silently watching me with eyes that were somehow sad.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Shrinking the Earth and watching Football, all about the word "sumimasen" and the four islands of Japan

That old planet Earth, she just keeps on getting smaller and smaller, and it's a lot of fun to sit back and watch the process unfold from the other side of the world. When I came here back in 1991, Japan was a lot farther away from the U.S. than it is now -- there was no Internet as we know it back when, of course, and calling home required biting the bullet and paying the $4-5 per minute to KDDI, definitely not a fun prospect. But since that time technology has really blossomed, pushing the "convenience quotient" for living in a strange place like Japan to dizzying new heights. The revolution in communication in the past decade and a half has been nothing short of incredible -- cheap international calling with "callback" services, the arrival of email, speedier communication with instant messaging and Internet video conferencing, and Skype -- I can even keep my cultural knowledge fresh thanks to Youtube. When I got here, there was exactly one source of news in English, the Far East Network radio station for the U.S. military, but now our cup runneth over with choices including podcasts from the BBC, NPR, NBC and more. Just as the maturity of the web has made it easy for people from all corners of the globe to order ninja boots or Black Black Caffeine Gum or Hello Kitty Mayonnaise Cups for your bento lunch from J-List, sites like are a huge boon to poor gaijin like me. I've finally attained the Holy Grail of Convenience for an expat in Japan, though, the absolute highest plane of Techno Nerdvanna -- being able to watch the Superbowl live, as it happens, courtesy of a Slingbox. It sure beats seeing the game with announcers giving the play-by-play in Japanese, something I just can't get used to.

Slingbox Superbowl

You may know the Japanese word sumimasen, which generally corresponds to "excuse me" and is one of the more useful phrases to learn, but like most aspects of this place there's a little more to it than appears on the surface. First and foremost, sumimasen (soo-mee-mah-SEN) is used in any situation where you need to apologize for something small, such as causing someone inconvenience by bumping into them in the street, calling the wrong number, or ordering curry with fried beef intestines accidentally because you couldn't read the kanji in the menu, then asking for something else instead. Many situations which would call for a "thank you" in English work better with sumimasen in Japanese, something I learned at a public bath a few weeks after first arriving here. We'd stayed a few minutes after closing time, causing minor inconvenience to the staff who no doubt wanted to get home, and as we left my Japanese coworker said sumimasen to them ("we're sorry for taking too long in the bath") rather than the phrase I would have used, arigato ("thank you for letting us stay a few minutes past closing time"). When I asked about this, I was told that "'Thank you' sounds cheap. 'Excuse me' is a better word for Japanese people." The sumimasen phrase is also used when asking for service in a restaurant, and one difference between Japan and the U.S. is that here, it's okay to loudly use the phrase to indicate that you're ready to order, whereas in the States you usually close your menu and sit quietly to be noticed most of the time. Like many Japanese phrases, you can use the all-purpose word domo (which loosely means "very") to add a layer of politeness -- domo sumimasen! ("I'm really sorry!").

Yes, it was nice being able to watch the game. Although now it made my update late by two hours...

Isn't this car cute? It was in my Flickr window so I thought I'd show you. I think there are lots of things we can do to use less fuel, if we'd all just learn to love slightly smaller cars. This is made by Subaru.

We bought a new TV, an Aquos. Of course the first thing I had to do was hook up my Atari 8 bit emulator to it and play me some M.U.L.E.

It's also good for a virtual fishtank.

Looks pretty real, doesn't it!