Friday, April 27, 2007

The Japanese social engine that is "obligation," words that are the same between English and Japanese, and stupid transliteration tricks.

One social engine at work in Japan is that of "obligation," essentially the knowing of what's expected of you and doing it, and whether it's female employees giving "obligation chocolate" to their male co-workers or my wife returning to Japan when her parents called her back even though she might have preferred to stay permanently in the U.S., it's one of the things that makes Japan such a unique place. In some specific situations this concept is known as giri (social obligation), but at other times it's so ingrained into people's lives that it goes unnamed. In many situations when something is asked of you, it can be hard to decline, especially if that person has done something for you in the past -- the reason I'm destined to play Santa Claus at the local kindergarten every Christmas for all eternity is because the brother of the school headmaster is a city councilman who's supported us in the past. Recently, a family friend of ours found himself without a job when the company he'd helped build went bankrupt suddenly, so he started a new company that would, among other things, sell insurance. Because of our friendship and a little invisible giri, my wife felt obligated to help him out by moving several of our policies over to him. Of course, people helping each other is what society is all about, and the kanji for "person" (hito) is written with two lines in the vague shape of a human body that prop each other up, and the Japanese say that each person needs others to stand up, or else both will fall down. Japan's crisscrossing lines of you-scratch-my-back have proven to be a profitable for the Amway multi-level marketing system, which has enjoyed great success in Japan over the years.

Transliteration is the act of moving a word from one writing system to another, and with languages like Chinese and Japanese, there are always different approaches to this problem. This is why you get variations like Peking and Beijing for the capital of China and why there's seemingly no "official" way to write Aoi Sora/Sola's name properly. Japanese is structured as a syllable-based language: for example, you can express the sounds ka, ki, ku, ke, and ko in Japanese, but not "k" all by itself. Phonetically, there are three syllables that don't quite fit the neat consonant + verb pattern, which are pronounced shi, tsu and chi. Should they be written as they're pronounced (called the Hepburn method), or should the two-letter pattern (si, tu and ti) be preserved even it leads to terribly inaccurate pronunciation (called the Nihon method)? As with certain computer platforms I could name, students of Japanese are usually willing to fight to the death over the system of Romanization they think is best. For the record, I believe that the best writing system communicates proper pronunciation to the widest number of people, and we always use this here at J-List.

Recently I talked about how the Japanese word for name -- namae (nah-mah-EH) -- was spookily similar to what it is in English, an interesting coincidence that isn't related to the importing of loan words, as far as I can determine. There are some other interesting coincidences hidden in the language that are fun to investigate. For whatever reason, the word so (as in, yes, that is as you say) is exactly the same in meaning in both languages, and So desu ka? means "Is that so?" A common word for "in" is the English word spelled backwards, ni. The Japanese word baibai means "buying and selling," and happens to be very similar to "buy." If you reverse the syllables in the word "road" you get dohro which means...road. A "honky" might be a rude word for white people from the 70s, but in Japanese it means "serious" (honki desu ka? = "Are you serious?"). A bimbo might be a dumb female, but in Japan the word means a poor person. And if you ever want to express frustration in Japanese, just shout out "Cheek show!" which happens to correspond to a curse roughly equal in nuance to "Damnit!" (Chikusho really means "beast" but the usage is the same.)

Mothers Day is coming. Have you gotten something special for her? Remember that J-List has thousands of wacky and fun products from Japan, from Hello Kitty items for her kitchen to high quality Kutani and Arita Ware glazed porcelain to a great traditional Japanese mimikaki ear cleaner (see below for a great one)? The special gift for Mom you're looking for might just be found on our website...stranger things have happened.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Japan's amazing adaptions of "black culture," all about gestures used by the Japanese, and what's the currency of Japan?

The Japanese are very good at taking outside culture and adapting it to fit their own needs, and they have done this in many different areas, from Buddhism and writing from China to Hollywood movies from the USA to Flamenco dancing from Spain. Many Japanese have also embraced "black" culture from the USA, and have internalized a lot of the music and fashion style into themselves. I'll never forget the time, soon after arriving in Japan, when I turned on the TV to see what I thought were two black gaijin speaking excellent Japanese on a variety program. It turned out I was watching the Bubblegum Brothers, a two-man JPOP group popular in the 1990s who adapted a "black style" that was so complete I was actually fooled. As part of their own personal vision quest, many young people explore the local hip hop and reggae music scene, and there are quite a few night clubs in our city where you can see "gangsta" or "rastafari" nihonjin partying til the wee hours of the morning. When Japanese think of black culture they think of the U.S. or Jamaica, but in reality most of the black foreigners in Japan are from Kenya or Nigeria. I always roll my eyes when, while walking in Tokyo's hip Harajuku region, I overhear a Kenyan man talking to a Japanese girl saying, "Yes, I'm American," despite his decidedly non-American accent. It's more than just young people who are interested in black music and culture in Japan -- back in my single days I used to frequent a bar with an owner who would play his collection of classic jazz and blues for his customers, which he played on honest-to-gosh LPs. That takes dedication.

Every country is different, and it's a lot of fun noticing the differences I see in Japan and reporting them to you. One reflection of culture can be seen in the gestures that Japanese make in daily life, like the ubiquitous "peace" sign which shows up whenever someone takes out a camera. (A brief aside: when Japanese get their picture taken, then often say "cheese" just like in English, but an alternate version is to say "what's one plus one?" which of course is "ni" in Japanese, which also results in a smile.) Some other gestures you might see include making a slash across the cheek with your forefinger, which means "That guy is dangerous, he looks like he's yakuza"; raising a pinky, which means "I'm meeting my girlfriend tonight"; indicating themselves by pointing to their noses, rather than their chests, as North Americans would do; beckoning by seeming to wave their hand in a way that would mean "go away" to Americans; and good old "Banzai," used mostly at political rallies in this peaceful era. One gesture the Japanese generally know but never use is the classic flipping of the bird, however they have the oddest habit of pointing to things using their middle finger, which always look odd to me.

The currency of Japan is the yen, a word which means "circle" since coins are round, or something like that. The yen was first introduced as part of the country's modernization efforts during the Meiji Era in the 1870s. One unique aspect of the currency is its low per-unit value. If I want to eat a meal and America or Europe, $10 or 10 euros will usually be enough, but you can't even buy a gumball with ten yen. To eat well, you'd need more like 1000-1500 yen, and for a family of four to eat properly might cost 5000 yen easily. A side-effect of this numerical oddity is, when learning to speak Japanese it's necessary to get used to using very high numbers quickly. Want to buy a car? You'll need 1-3 million yen. How about building a house? Depending on its size, you'd be looking at a 20 million yen expenditure. When I read about the current Japanese budget deficit expressed in yen, the numbers are so high that they might as well be expressed in scientific notation. Japan's money is very efficient, with paper notes issued in values of 1,000, 5,000 and 10,000, whereas there are many more flavors of paper money used in the U.S. Like Europe, the Japanese force their citizens to use coins for low-value denominations like 100 and 500 yen rather than paper money, which takes getting used to but nets a significant savings for society overall, as coins can be used for decades. In America if you've got a pocketful of change you might be able to buy a couple of cokes, but it's quite easy to have $20 worth of yen in your pocket in Japan.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Japan and its interesting top-down society, a trip to the park, and all about Japan and conveyor-belt sushi

One of the more interesting aspects of Japan is the top-down nature of its society, how it's ostensibly structured in a way that channels more respect to senior individuals in a school or organization, and society in general. When a younger student or junior employee in a company (kohai) sees an older student or senior employee (senpai), it's expected that he will greet his senior using a formal salutation like Ohayo gozaimasu, while the senior will reply with the more informal Ohayo. In English, I might talk about my brother or my sister without necessarily concerning myself with wether the sibling in question were older or younger than me, but in Japanese these concepts are always split into "oniisan / ototo" and "oneesan / imoto" for older and younger brother and sister, respectively. What about twins, you ask? The one to pop out first is the older one, even if it's only by a few minutes. Lang- uage always reflects the society that generates it, and there are invisible linguistic lines drawn to preserve the separate-ness of individuals from different groups. For example, the word for "friend" is tomodachi, but this usually only applies to someone of the same age as you, or who entered an organization at the same time as you; for other acquaintances, you'd usually use a different word like junior/senior, colleague, etc. My wife loves watching CSI, turning on the Japanese dubbed track because it'd be a chore for her to understand all the medical terminology, and sometimes I like to listen in. In order to remain faithful to the original English dialogue, the CSI team speak incredibly informally to each other, even to their superiors, something that could not be conceived of in Japan.

The weather was nice over the weekend, so my daughter and I went for a bicycle ride to the park, and as is often the case, I found myself surrounded by kids who were curious about this large gaijin with golden hair on his arms. Whenever I interact with children in Japan, I make sure to take off my sunglasses to avoid scaring them, since kids in Japan don't have that much opportunity to get used to interacting with foreigners. I also make liberal use of the phrases that kids expect English-speakers to say all the time, like "How are you?" and "Oh my god!" and "Unbelievable!" which got many giggles. As I watched my daughter play and made small talk with the Japanese parents around me, I wondered why I was the only gaijin parent around on a sunny Saturday. With 3% of my city's population made up of foreigners, mostly from Brazil and Peru, you'd think there'd be more mothers with their kids there, mixing in with the other parents, but there were none to be seen.

Kaiten Sushi

The other night we all went out for sushi, and like many people do, we opted for a kaiten-zushi restaurant, featuring sushi on a conveyor belt allowing you to grab what you want as it sails by. Unfortunately for our growling stomachs, a few hundred other customers had also gotten the hankering for sushi, and so we had to wait over an our for a table to open up. This popular alternative to a traditional-style sushi restaurant was invented in 1958 by an enterprising restaurant owner in Osaka who was having trouble staffing his restaurant, so he came up with a way for very a few employees to service many customers at once. According to research, a lot of the popularity of conveyor-belt sushi comes from the way the products scroll by from right to left, which creates a pleasant sensation in the brain as any want can be fulfilled just by reaching out one's hand. Although there are many cheap sushi restaurants in our city, we've been happy to find a few that offer better quality "neta" (the fish-part of sushi) for around $1.75-$3 per plate. Truly, life is too short to be eating cheap sushi.

Many gaijin come to Japan and fall in love with onsen (OWN-sen, 温泉), the famous natural hot springs that have been enjoyed by Japanese for centuries. The best hot springs are, of course, the mixed-bathing variety, called kon'yoku (混浴) in Japanese, which can be quite hard to find (I've only found one in my years in Japan). Our newest wacky T-shirt proclaims your affinity for Japan's bathing culture, featuring a kanji slogan that reads "I love mixed-bathing hot springs," with the normal "heart" shape cleverly replaced by the "onsen mark," a symbol that denotes Japanese hot springs. Check out our newest T-shirt now!

Another odd toy from Japan. This is a cute bishojo female Self-Defense Force moe character.

This one is deep. A "bootlet T-shirts" (sic) that takes the Back to the Future characters and Peanuts-ifies them.

Matches with strange symbols on them.

Slap-a my hand, black soul man! (That's a reference to a classic SNL skit.) That reminds me to do a post on the Japanese and their strange fascination with black culture.

Ah, Indian food in Tokyo. How do I love thee.