Friday, June 15, 2007

All about "castle towns," the use of euphsmisms in daily life in Japan, and funny English you can try at home

As with Europe, Japan has had a long history which has left its mark on cities and towns today. Most of Japan's cities started out as castle towns, built up around the castle of the local samurai lord during Japan's feudal period, which ended only 140 years ago. Virtually all the cities around J-List -- Gunma prefectural capital Maebashi, commercialized Takasaki with its coveted Bullet Train line, and our own Isesaki -- originated as castle towns, and have curvy, narrow, inconvenient roads to prove it. Most of the beautiful castles in Japan are long gone, some lost to floods or general disuse and others destroyed during World War II, and their ruins are usually transformed into parks or other open spaces where people can come and commune with their history or have a picnic. Now only a dozen of the original large castles remain, with the most beautiful generally considered to be Himeji Castle near Kobe, a massive towering white structure that dates back to before the age of Columbus. (Click here for a really big picture of this castle.)

I talked before about euphemisms the Japanese use in their daily lives. Substituting beautified words or phrases for potentially embarrassing ones that we don't want to utter directly is something we all do, but Japan seems to have raised it to an art form. The subject of death is a primary candidate for the use of these substitute phrases, and some polite ways of referring to death include takai ("went to the other world") or gorin-juu ("arriving at the final stage of life"). An average of three times a month, some depressed Japanese person decides to end it all by jumping in front of a train on Tokyo's busy Chuo Line, and whenever there's an announcement of a delay due to "an accident involving physical injury" everyone knows what is really meant. From time to time, a man may purchase various services from a woman, and that practice is prettied up as enjo kosai" ("paid dates) or fashionable words like "delivery health" or "pink salon." Virtually all Japanese females seem to suffer from chronic constipation, which is caused from eating rice three times a day, and there are many alternative ways to refer to this state, including otsuji ga warui (traffic isn't passing through properly). Female menstruation is another big area for finding other words to describe a thing, with the most common way to refer to this is seiri, literally meaning "biology," although there are many other alternate names, like Anne's Day (a bizarre reference to Anne Frank) or "Japanese Flag Day." Finally, perhaps the most famous euphemism used in Japanese is the English letter "H," usually pronounced "ecchi," which stands for anything to do with sex (i.e. a person who thinks about sex to much is "ecchi," to have sex is "ecchi suru" and so on).

Japanese students study a total of six years of English, even more if they go on to college, and even though most people don't attain real conversational fluency, English does seep into the culture here in many interesting ways. The Japanese use thousands of foreign-loan words in their daily lives, mostly from English, but sometimes the meanings get changed a little. In Japanese usage, "milk" (miruku) always refers to powdered creamer for your coffee, and some words for makeup are shifted in meaning, too: "rouge" means lipstick and "manicure" means nail polish, although a "hair manicure" means getting your hair dyed a different color. Sometimes the Japanese will use words from languages other than English for style or phonetic reasons. For example, to avoid problems with similar words such as "crown" and "clown," they turn to French for the latter term: pierrot. Of course, language is all about communication, and there's no such thing as "wrong" language if it does it job, but it can be a challenge to keep from judging the Japanese for using "mistaken" English like referring to the thing you look through in a camera as the "finder." It's an even bigger challenge keeping from embarrassing myself by using these colorful English phrases with my family and friends when I go back to the States.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Japan dealing with counterfeit products from China, understand society and economics through Bull-Dog Sauce, and

Like other developed nations, many of the products the Japanese use every day are manufactured in China, and recently the problem of counterfeit goods has been getting more attention in Japan. Right now, factories are churning out fake versions of everything from designer bags to Puma shoes to -- I am not kidding -- Mitsubishi elevators, but when you're buying brake pads for your Toyota Camry you want to know that they were made according to the specs of the manufacturer and will work when you need them. Then there's the state-run fake version of Disneyland in Beijing, with all your favorites including Mickey, Minnie and Donald as well as scary versions of Hello Kitty and Doraemon. Recently, Yamaha won a suit with a Chinese manufacturer who was making fake "Japan Yamaha Inc." motorcycles with 100% counterfeit parts and selling them as the real McCoy. In the landmark case, they'll receive $1 million and an apology.

In Japan, there are two types of people, those who like soy sauce dolloped over their fried eggs, and those who prefer the Bull-Dog sauce that's known as "sauce" (ソース) in Japanese. I'm a soy sauce man myself, unless we're talking about a fried egg sandwich, since soy sauce and bread don't mix that well, but I do recognize the superiority of "sauce" in just about every other food category, especially fried croquettes. That self-same Japanese condiment is under attack from an American foreign investment fund called Steel Partners, which is seeking to purchase controlling interest in the Bull-Dog sauce company in a leveraged buyout, a concept that's still quite foreign in this country where businessmen are usually polite to each other. Bull-Dog is taking some "poison pill" steps to ward off the buyout, including allowing shareholders other than Steel Partners to buy additional stock. As a general rule, companies attempting unwanted takeovers face an uphill battle in Japan and get plenty of negative press, despite the fact that takeovers are all part of how owning stock in corporations works (you know, stockowners being the owners of the company and not management, all that stuff).

As you know, Japan is a rather unique place, and sometimes it seems there's almost no aspect of the country that can't surprise you. As with other parts of the world, goods are transported from place to place by trucks, and truckers ply the open highways as they shuttle their cargo around the country, listening to the local version of country music, called enka. Many truckers spice up their time on the road by decking their wheels out with blinking lights, outrageously gaudy side mirrors and huge panels of traditional Japanese art, a practice called dekotora or "decoration truck." The whole business of driving around in a truck decked out with blinking lights began in the early 1970s with truckers who hauled fish to market attaching stainless steel fairings to their vehicles to keep corrosion due to the salty air at bay. The boom in decoration trucks was helped along by a Toho movie series called Truck Yarou (Truckers) which brought the hobby to a national level. Dekotora are usually named by their owners, with names usually ending in kanko (sightseeing), since the original truck modifiers had to scavenge for lights from old sightseeing busses, or maru (circle), often used in ship names (think Kobayashi-maru, Star Trek fans). There are many varieties of these colorful trucks, including designs that resemble colored floats from the Nebuta Festival in Aomori Prefecture or shrines to right-wing Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima or Amuro Rei from Mobile Suit Gundam. Today we happen to have gotten in some cool made-in-Japan T-shirts featuring the logo from the Truck Yarou film, a killer item for anyone who loves a truck, or who just digs the way the kanji and katakana look on the shirt.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Japanese fascination with movies about New York and Audrey Hepburn, thoughts on home-owning in Japan, and the Japanese take on "Kamikaze"

The Japanese are fascinated with the enigma of New York City, and there are hundreds of books written about the city from the standpoint of Japanese living there. They also love movies, and the other day I caught an interesting show on NHK featuring a circle of Japanese guests (as well as the token Japanese-fluent foreigner) discussing their favorite movies that were set in New York, from Taxi Driver to The Godfather to An Affair to Remember. They talked about how easy it was to obtain permission for making films in the city compared to Tokyo (shooting Lost in Translation was only possible thanks to Mayor Shintaro "The Japan Who Can Say No" Ishihara getting personally involved and saying yes). The favorite New York-based film of everyone at the table was Breakfast at Tiffany's, especially popular in Japan because of its demure star Audrey Hepburn, who managed to become famous all over the world despite her small bust, a fact which caused female Japanese fans to identify with her.

One of the big differences between Japan and the U.S. is how a home is viewed. In the States, homes generally go up in value over time, and if you spend money renovating bathrooms or adding rooms you're likely to be rewarded with a higher value next time you get the house appraised. This isn't the case in Japan, where living in a "used" house is all but unthinkable, and anyone buying an existing home will tear it down and build a new one in its place. No, in Japan, land is what's considered valuable, not any building sitting on it, so any improvements to your home that you make are for your family's use and enjoyment and no other reason. While is kind of nice, actually -- not having to be concerned with what modifications you make to your home will do to its value is kind of refreshing. When we added a Japanese-style genkan (a recessed area near the front door for guests to take their shoes off) and bath in our house in San Diego we had to make sure we weren't doing anything to the home that would cause problems for us later.

It's funny how a word can mean one thing to one group of people and something else to another. When Americans hear the word kamikaze (kah-MEE-kah-ZEH), meaning "divine wind," they naturally recall the images of desperate Japanese pilots diving their planes into ships in the last months of the War in the Pacific. Japanese people, instead, bring up images of the historical typhoons that destroyed two invading Mongol fleets in 1274 and 1281, which kept Japan free from invasion by the much more technologically advanced Mongols, as important an event to Japan's history as the Norman Conquest was to England. For the record, the wartime suicide attacks, which were are generally known as tokko or "special attack" missions, an example of the Japanese penchant for using polite euphemisms for just about any word you can think of.

If you've ever been to Japan, you might have been impressed by the super-realistic wax replicas of menu items on display in a glass case in front of restaurant windows. Creation of replica food that looks so delicious customers will want to come in and eat is an art form, and popular artists who can create delicious-looking fake food are quite in demand. This fascination with realistic looking food can be enjoyed in the super-detailed miniature toys of Re-Ment, the company known for making everything from sushi to cakes to the every day meals served in Japanese kitchens, and packaged supermarket foods, too. Since Re-Ment toys are all scaled the same, you can mix and match the many delightful miniature toys in any way you like. Many of our customers who collect dolls buy Re-Ment toys to provide an extra layer of realism to any display, or else just have fun lining up the miniature toys on your TV. Nearly all our Re-Ment toys are available as full sets of random individual boxes. Check them out now!