Saturday, May 12, 2007

Gaijin battling to be the "King of Akihabara," silly thoughts on Japanese company names, and life sometimes being fair in your favor

One Japanese TV show that never fails to please is TV Champion, which pits exceptional people against each other in contests that are always fascinating to watch. Past episodes have featured home remodelers who must transform dilapidated houses into things of beauty with a budget of just $300, chefs who bake bread in the shape of St. Peter's Basilica, children who memorize classical Japanese history just for fun, and "UFO Catcher" collectors who are very good at picking plush toys out of crane game machines. Last night's episode was a battle between gaijin otaku from around the world to see who could be the foreign "Akiba-oh" (King of Akihabara). The questions were taken from a wide range of otaku culture, from guessing the name of an anime theme song to identifying which maid outfit went with which maid cafe to completing a famous line of dialogue from Mobile Suit Gundam (while wearing Char Aznable's famous Red Comet uniform, of course). In the end, the battle came down to Cheng from Hong Kong and Jenya from Russia. The final championship questions were tough, but Cheng correctly identified an electronics shop that's been in business since 1927 to win the gold.

I'll never forget the time when, back in college, I was copying some documents on a Ricoh copier and suddenly realized that the name of the company meant "clever" in Japanese. It was like a secret code embedded in the universe, and I wondered what other hidden gems I might be able to find by analyzing Japanese company names. Many corporations are named after their founders, like the automobile company Souichiro Honda launched, or the chocolate company Tachiro Morinaga created after studying confectionary-making in the U.S. The founder of Pocky maker Glico's son died at a young age of malnutrition, so he named his new company after the nutrient "glycogen," now found in all the company's products. Camera maker Nikon's name is a merging of the words for "Japan Optical" and the "Zeiss Ikon" line of lenses from Carl Zeiss, which the company hoped to duplicate. Subaru is the Japanese name for the Pleadies, and Daihatsu is a contraction of "Osaka Engineering Works." The image of the rising sun is imporant to the Japanese, and this is employed by companies like Asahi ("morning sun"), Hitachi ("rising sun") and Sunrise Animation. When the Toyoda Automatic Loom company decided to branch out into automobiles, they decided that "Toyota" had a better ring to it, and they wrote their name in hard-edged katakana characters rather than kanji to set themselves apart. They did so well that the town they were based in eventually changed its name to Toyota City. They still make automatic looms, however.

I'm sure that everyone has said at one time or another, "I know that life's not fair, but why isn't it ever fair in my favor?" All in all, Japan is a place where a gaijin can actually enjoy things going their way every once in a while. The "Universal Mystique of Foreign-ness Principle" helps make even a vanilla white boy like me seem interesting to my Japanese hosts, which has earned me invitations to karaoke and drink parties and an occasional girl's phone number scrawled on a chopstick wrapper over the years. When I came to Japan, my favorite band was a Japanese group called Psy-s (pronounced "size"), known for singing a few anime theme songs and releasing many other albums (City Hunter opening credits, To-y, and a few others, although that really dates me), and when I saw they were giving a concert in Tokyo, I made sure to be there. Afterwards I wrote a letter to the lead vocalist Chaka (no relation to the Pakuni from Land of the Lost) to see if she happened to notice a big gaijin in the crowd. She wrote back to me that she had, and we became friends. Of course, things can work in favor of foreign visitors to the U.S. too. J-List's Yasu was a rap DJ before he joined our company, and when he was studying in Philadelphia he went to a club where rapper Nas was going to perform. On a lark, he told the organizers that he was a rapper from Japan, and they immediately put him on stage to sing in Japanese.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Japan, education and conformity, thoughts on memorizing various stuff, and the enigma of barley tea in the summer

Japan is a country that's very focused on education, and I've always observed that parents seem to put more energy and thought into educating children than I've generally seen in the U.S. To improve the communication between parents and the school, teachers always make a visit at the beginning of the school year, to see what the child's home environment is like and talk over any concerns with parents, and our daughter's teacher came by yesterday. Our daughter is haafu, but with a very expressive and individualistic American side, which can sometimes present challenges in the otherwise homogenous classroom, including minor ijime by the other kids who say things like "Sorry, I don't understand English" when she talks to them in Japanese. (Kids will be kids, and I got the same treatment when I lived in New Zealand for a year at the age of six.) This year we have an extra problem, as the fifth graders will be taking a school trip to the Sea of Japan during the summer break in August, but our kids will be in the U.S. doing fun things and learning English instead. If my daughter is the only one in her class who doesn't go, it'll make her nakama-hazure (nah-kah-mah ha-zoo-reh), or a person outside the group, and her teacher was putting pressure on us to change our plans for the summer. It's a difficult decision, and probably only one that could only come up in a country that values harmony as much as Japan does. What would you do in our situation?

My wife marvels at my ability to quote the proposal scene from the Maison Ikkoku anime or the entire first three Star Wars films from memory despite being unable to recall my dentist appointment this afternoon. Yes, the way memory works is interesting, and learning a foreign language is a great way to mind-meld with your own brain and get insights on how it works. I figured out early on that trying to learn Japanese by cramming information into my skull was not going to work, and instead tried to attack each aspect of the language from as many directions as possible, including writing sentences repeatedly (an effective study method, if boring), studying in short sessions, making associations such as the kanji for "meat" looking like a rib cage, using those funky study aids from Japan, and when possible, speaking with real live native speakers, as the feedback when you screw up in a comical way is quite valuable. Another important tool was is using songs to help memorize information -- although I don't remember much about 1982, I can still remember the song that goes "867-5309." I got a lot of benefit from listening to JPOP songs my friends would record for me as well as hitting the Japanese karaoke bar scene each weekend, since you can literally call up a vocabulary word by singing a song that contains it back to yourself. One added benefit of studying from songs is natural accent reduction, and I believe that I speak the language more like a native because of heavy use of song vocals while studying. I wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that I can understand the U2 musicians when they sing, but not when they talk?

The Japanese have a special fascination with New York City, and it's not uncommon to see late-night "New York News" shows featuring a slice of life from America's most populous city from the viewpoint of the Japanese. In one show I caught they talked about New York's "bagel culture" and how the city could not start its day without them. The same could be said of Japan's summer season and mugi cha, the delicious barley tea that is universally consumed during the hot months of the summer here. Made of toasted barley, it's a delicious beverage usually served cold but sometimes hot. Because it contains no sugar or caffeine, it's considered very healthy, and has been shown in tests to reduce the effects of stress. My wife gave barley tea to our kids when they were babies to help fat-proof them, since it's a lot better for them than just about anything else kids are likely to drink. We've gotten our first mugi cha tea bags of the season today, a huge package that makes 40 liters of refreshing tea for you. Why not enjoy some Japanese barley tea this summer?

We've got good news for fans of the DVD movie format who don't want to be told by Hollywood that they can only watch discs from the region they happen to live in. J-List's region free DVD players make it easy to enjoy "indies" JAV and anime discs from Japan as well as discs from any other part of the world, with full support for all the features you want, including playback of DIVX and AVI movies from DVD-R media. We've lowered the prices of all three of our current players, so that the reliable Rjtech RJ-200 now just $68 and the high-end RJ1000HD upscaling DVD player with HDMI (and included cable!) now just $98. Of course the players are made for the U.S. market, have full 1-year warranties and are fully compatible with your current TV.

Yulia Nova is the beautiful Russian idol who became a sensation in Japan and the Internet, and her newest DVDs are finally in stock and ready for your order. The three new titles -- Yulia In the Spring, Summer and Winter -- are each filmed using exclusively new footage, shot of the lovely model in Moscow in each of the three seasons. It's a rare treat for fans of this special woman. Available now!

Monday, May 07, 2007

The history of family names in Japanese, why there are so many last names in use here, and the Japanese connection with Auld Lang Syne

Names in Japanese are quite different from what we're usually used to in the West. Right off the bat, the family and given names are reversed, so if you're going to talk about "kawaii" bikini idol Yuko Ogura in Japanese, you'd need to get used to calling her Ogura Yuko. There are no middle names in Japan, and over the years I've been asked quite a lot by my students about my own middle name (Rowland), which they find interesting. Japanese also never name sons after fathers, as my own father did with me, and part of the mystique of the famous thief Lupin III is that he's the third generation to hold that name despite being of mixed Japanese ancestry. In the States, expectant mothers will buy a book of baby names that contains information on the etymology of each (for example, my own name comes from the Greek word for 'rock'), and books which present various kanji names are popular in Japan, too. It's common for Japanese to consult their local Shinto shrine for advice when choosing a name, but my wife's family is a little more Buddhist than most, so we visited our family Buddhist temple instead. We had been all set to name our son Kazuma, written with the characters for "peace" and "horse," but the priest warned us that choosing animal names was a bad idea, as our son would be headstrong and never listen to us.

It can be fun to study how Japanese surnames work. One of the mysteries of family names in Japan is the large number of different ones that exist, around 120,000, compared with a few thousand in China and only 249 in Korea. This is caused partially by how late Japan was in adopting universal surnames, which only became required in 1870, and a lack of a specific tradition of naming families up to that point. It'd be hard to imagine a neighborhood in the States where everyone was named Smith, but nearly everyone who lives around our house has the same last name as us, Yanai, and nearby there are patches of houses where everyone is named Hosoi or Ishida, yet no one is related to anyone around them. Part of this is due to the fact that we live in a small rural city in the exact center of the country where no one ever sells their land, because if you sold your land and moved to another part of the country, what would you do with your family gravestone? Your ancestors would be so lonely. One amusing aspect of living in Japan is hearing people with names like Tanaka ("in the rice field"), Yamada ("rice field on the mountain") and Nakamura ("in the village") argue vehemently that their ancesors were samurai warriors despite their agrarian sounding names.

It's funny how different inputs -- such as a simple song -- can push different emotional buttons depending on what culture you hail from. When most North Americans hear the Scottish folksong Auld Lang Syne we probably immediately think of New Year's Eve, of saying goodbye to the old year with a large beer in our hands. Hotaru no Hikari, or Light of the Fireflies, is the title of the Japanese version of this song, and in Japan it's sung at graduations. The chorus tells the story of hard-working students who wanted to study so much that they read books by the light of fireflies captured in a jar, or the moonlight reflected off snow. It can bring a tear to the eyes of Japanese who hear it sung, and a totally different image from one we might conjure up. Incidentally, the song is also played by stores as they're about to close, and if you've ever visited Japan and wondered why they were playing Auld Lang Syne over the store speakers, it was a polite request that you complete your purchase and leave the store. Here are the words to the first section, in case you're curious:

hotaru no hikari, mado no yuki

fumi yomu tsukihi, kasane tsutsu

itsushika toshi mo, sugi no towo

aketezo kesa wa, wakare yuku
Light of fireflies, snow by the window

Many suns and moons spent reading

Years have gone by without notice

Day has dawned; this morning, we part

This month's "Manga Artist of the Month" is the talented Maguro Teikoku (Tuna Empire), the celebrated erotic manga-ka known for such works as Sister for the Summer, How To Guide for the First Date and the classic Spirit of Capitalism, which you can now read in English in Comic AG. He got started as an artist by accompanying a friend who wanted to draw erotic comics; his friend wasn't hired, but he got an offer from the company instead. His pen name comes from the fact that he was quite lazy, and his parents threatened to sell him to a tuna fishing boat.

Remember that J-List carries the incredible Fuccons, aka OH! Mikey, the wacky Japanese comedy series acted out with mannequins who parody an American family living in Japan. From Mikey and his sinister cousin Laura, cute girlfriend Emily, mother Barbara, father James and the annoying twins from England Tony and Charles, you will laugh so hard you might have to go to the hospital. We also recommend the hilarious Vermillion Pleasure Night series, the bold late-night film short series that got OH! Mikey started. These are available on DVD and are fully subtitled in English.