Friday, July 20, 2007

More thoughts on Hiro from Heroes (yuk yuk), comparing Maryland with Japan, and all about a great remapping in Japan's history

I'm enjoying my time here in Annapolis, as we get ready for Otakon, the wildest anime convention on the East Coast, which starts on Friday and goes through Sunday. If you'll be at the show, we hope you'll come by and see us in booth 611. We'll have many great products for our customers, especially our PC dating-sim games and other goodies (and something secret, too). Every J-List reader who comes by will get something free -- see you there!

I'm still enjoying Heroes, the TV show about people who discover they have super powers, including Japanese salaryman Hiro ("hero," get it?), who develops the ability to stop time with his mind. The character is played by uber geek Masi Oka, who's done work as a computer effects guru for Lucasfilm and who has a degree in computer science. While the show strives to present the Japanese dialogue between Hiro and his friend Ando in a natural way, there are times that the English teacher in me says, hey, Japanese ESL types wouldn't really say that. In one scene, the English-challenged Hiro shouts out, "Don't worry, New York. We will save you!" Due to a grammatical oddity of Japanese, the simple future tense ("we will save you") and the simple present ("we save you") are identical, which means that it's quite common for a Japanese person to say something like "I go there" when he's really talking about something he'll do in the near future. Thus, it'd be more natural for Hiro to shout "We save you!" in this scene. Another giveaway that Masi's lines were written first in English is his (usually) accurate use of the "s" as found in sentences like "he drinks water." Truly the bane of learners of English all over the world, third person singular "s" (or for oddball words like fix or pass, "es") serves no actual purpose yet must always be present for speech to sound correct. If you speak English as your mother tongue, go thank your parents -- you'll never have to go through the terrible experiences that ESL students must face!

Hiro Nakamura and English grammar

As usual, being in a new part of the U.S. brings new observations about Japan. One thing that's struck me is the incredible history that can be found even in a young country like the United States, which is evident in every corner of a place like Maryland. You can really feel the history in the names of things around you, like Anne Arundel County where I am now, named after Lord Baltimore's beloved wife back when the colony was getting started. This is in stark contrast to Japan, which rarely wraps history into its names, preferring, say, the name of Misato ("three lands") for a part of our city that was incorporated from three other areas rather than naming it after a person who did something special in the region. The various schools I've attended in the U.S. often bore either the names of historical figures like Junipero Serra or of an educator who had distinguished himself in his teaching career, but public schools in Japan get numbers, e.g. Junior High School No. 1, Junior High School No. 2. Similarly, since most streets aren't named in Japan, there's no equivalent of honoring someone by naming a street after them -- no local version of "Martin Luther King Jr Blvd."

It turns out that there's a reason why Japanese might have a different attitude about its place names than we do here in the U.S., due to the unique nature of its rapid modernization, which essentially saw the country going from a feudal system to a semi-modern constitutional monarchy in just two decades. In 1871, the Meiji government decided that the only way to really ensure the changes they were forcing on their people would stick would be if the old system of domains, called han, was eliminated entirely. They declared the "elimination of the domain system, and the creation of the prefectural system," which is called hai-han chi-ken (HAI-han chee-KEN) in case you want to impress a Japanese person with your knowledge of archaic Japanese words. During this time, the entire country was re-incorporated into a French-style system of prefectures, with every line redrawn and every regional name changed. Our prefecture had been called Kozuke-no-kuni, but was renamed Gunma, which means "a herd of horses," thus making Japanese from other parts of the country think that we've got lots of horses, when there are not really any at all. The idea that a country would redraw all its internal borders and eliminate all historical place names seems unthinkable, but that's how how serious the "Forefathers" of modern Japan were about creating a country that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the modern powers of Europe and the U.S.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ways that America steals ideas from Japan, the Japanese language as "most difficult in the world" and what color are your eyes?

I've written about how Japan's society often seems to follow behind the U.S. in many areas, usually running about a decade or so behind. Well, spending time at home has shown me that America might be taking more than a few ideas from Japan, too. The other day one of the nice ladies in Costco offered me some Melon Mint gum -- essentially, it was gum that tastes like cantaloupe and mint, which as far as I'm concerned is up there with the Japanese "salt n' citrus" flavored popcorn we posted on Monday, or that wild "Let's Order Some Bacon" artificial bacon-flavored snacks we sell, in terms of general strangeness. I think that weird company names are creeping into American life, too. The other day I saw a sign for a company called ToolUp!, a name that sounds about as odd to me as the Japanese used bookstore chain BookOff!, or their sister chain that sells various forms of computer, game console and other "hardware" called HardOff! It's funny the way Japan and the rest of the world influence each other...

If there's one thing that the Japanese tend to believe, it's that their native language is the most difficult in the world, and this is quite a point of pride with them. Various reasons why Japanese is "harder" are cited, including the multiple writing systems used -- the hiragana and katakana syllabaries, used to express Japanese and foreign-loan words; kanji from China, used to express complex concepts in writing; and the "unofficial" fourth writing system, the Roman alphabet. But another reason why Japanese can be considered more difficult is its famous vagueness. When my wife wants to know I'm ready to go to lunch, she comes into my office and asks Iku? which literally means "Go?" -- parts of the sentence like who is going, where are they going, etc. are all omitted since they're clear from the context. One phrase you'll learn if you watch anime is suki desu (pronounced like "SKI-dess") which literally means "like." But who likes whom, or what? While it's possible that this line could mean "that girl likes watermelon" if the speakers had been discussing that subject previously, the most common meaning is "I like you" (and since the real way to say "love" in Japanese is way too romantic for shy Japanese to ever use, the phrase essentially means "I love you"). But it's not uncommon for a story to center around a character saying suki desu to the person they're secretly in love with, and then suddenly adding a word that changes the object of their liking to something else, like suika (watermelon), creating drama between the characters about what the character really meant the first time. This vagueness of speech is one of the most subtle areas of learning Japanese, and I still have trouble following the flow of a conversation sometimes.

What color are your eyes? All Japanese people have brown eyes, although if you ever ask them what color their eyes are, they'll tell you "black" (because the center of the eyes are indeed black). Japanese are often interested in the eyes of foreigners, since they come in different colors, something totally unknown in Japan (although they do have color contact lenses). When I tell Japanese that my eyes change color depending on what I'm wearing, ranging from green to hazel to blue, they usually don't believe it's possible, but it's true, as far as I've always been able to verify. Once, I was asked by my former Spanish teacher, a Japanese woman who grew up in Peru, if I saw the world through a blue or green tint because of the color of my eyes. I filed this question under "weird things people have asked me in Japan," alongside "how many guns did you own when you lived in America?"

I've made the hop from San Diego to Baltimore, getting ready for Otakon, which I'll be attending. We'll have lots of goodies for you, including our world-famous English-translated PC dating-sim games, so if you'll be at the show we hope you'll drop by booth 611 to say hi (we'll also have at least one surprise for anyone who drops by). Otakon is one of our favorite conventions anywhere, a fantastic opportunity to experience the pure energy of anime fandom in today's youth culture. If you miss me in the dealers' room, I'll be roaming the halls, just people-watching.

For the new update, we've got some excellent new and restocked products, including more "Sake Brand" items with authentic sake logos on them, cool business card holders with images of sakura on them, deluxe bento box sets, study items, various Tachikoma and Walkie Bits toys, Nausicaa and Totoro toys, anime figures like Koko Tsukishima from D.C. and Mitsuru Kijirou from the Personal3 RPG, and more. For our 18 plus customers, enjoy many new and restocked tiems too! Click here for our work-safe products, or click over to this page to see all products (including adult items).

This is my neice, who was visiting San Diego. We took her out to eat her first ever sushi.

And this is my nephew, Nick. He is preparing the chopsticks like a bushido warrior.

Eat that sushi, Nick! We found out that Edamame are great for babies becausae they're fun to open and they taste good. He ate about 8000 of them. The sushi he liked less, but he tried it before tossing it aside, which is more than I can say for some of my other family members.

This is that gum, in case you're wanting to track some down. I think that it wasn't that bad, but a huge box of it would start to get old, fast.

The iPhone was nice to have on the plane, as I got through my whole first 5 hour flight watching videos. I've seen almost no discussion of Haruhi Suzumiya and the Hyperion novels by Dan Simmons, which is a part of the story (this is the book Yuki gives Kyon, and the male character meeting an older, sexier version of his girlfriend theme comes from the books. Add that to my "how America and Japan influene each other" list... Anyway, if you're a Haruhi fan, hunt down the four Hyperion novels (they also happen to be the only SF novels written in the Chaucerian tradition).

Monday, July 16, 2007

Observations on the Japanese and music culture, things you learn as an ESL teacher, and comparing San Diego to Japan

One observation I've made about Japan in the 15+ years I've spent there is, they pay a little more attention to music-related culture than we generally do in the States. It's quite common for Japanese kids to take piano lessons as they go through school, and my own kids went beyond this stage, becoming quite proficient at the clarinet and flute. Whereas I picked up virtually all my knowledge of the great composers of Europe from Peanuts comics (just 153 days til Beethoven's birthday!), most Japanese kids I've seen know Bach from Beethoven from Brahmas. One of our favorite TV shows each week was called "The Titleless Concert" which aired on Sunday mornings. The host was Kentaro Haneda, a kindly old conductor whose mission was to bring classical music to people in a form that everyone could enjoy -- kind of a Carl Sagan of the concerthall. Maestro Haneda was also a composer who, among many other achievements, wrote virtually all the music for the Macross animated series and movie. Sadly, he passed away last month due to liver cancer. He will be missed by many.

Coming to Japan and teaching English as a second language is in itself quite an education, and when a gaijin takes the plunge and comes to Japan to teach he will learn many things. First of all, you learn that you speak too fast for people here to understand you, no matter how slowly you think you're speaking, and by the time you've learned to speak more clearly, your friends back home will mock you for talking funny. Your perception of English starts to change, too, as you learn to call a kerosene heater a "stove" and a cheerleader a "cheer girl." You also learn odd words that you never thought existed, which are very much a part of the lives of your students, so you need to learn them if you're going to be effective as a teacher. One such word for me was "bukatsu" (boo-KAH-tsoo), which means "club activities," i.e. meeting with your club for an hour or two after school. The concept of clubs is much more important to a group-oriented place like Japan, and whether a certain person chooses to join the kendo club or the track team or brass band or the ping pong club (or the SOS Brigade) is an important choice, a "decision point" (just like in a dating-sim game) that could play a big part in that individual's personal happiness in the future. Clubs play an especially big role in junior high school, when teachers require students to pick a club and will force them to join one of they can't decide (my wife was made to join the volleyball club against her will). There's a little more leeway in high school, but most students still join a club -- the stigma of kitaku-bu" or "going home club (what students who refuse to join a club are called) is pretty significant (since by going home when everyone else is in their club, you are -- gasp! -- an outsider).

I'm enjoying my time here in San Diego, having my home country around me for a change. On Saturday I took my Miata out to the desert to remind myself what much of California is like, which was a lot of fun, at least until the temperature passed 110 degrees or so. Right now the poor J-List staff is enduring the tail end of Japan's dreary rainy season, which stretches from mid-June to mid-July, when most every day sees grey skies and rain that falls in large plum-sized droplets (the word for rainy season, tsuyu, is written with kanji that mean "plum rain" (梅雨)). There's another reason I'm not sorry to be ouside of Japan: there was a magnitude 6.8 earthquake today, centered in Niigata, right next to our home prefecture of Gunma. Several buildings were flattened and two elderly women were killed by the quake, sadly.

What's a road trip without a drink? Man you Americans have a lot of choices!

Okay, moving along out of Poway now.

If you like music, I recommend the Alpine stereos that interface well with iPod/iPhone. I had lots of tunes as I was driving.

I soon reached Dudley's Bakery, near Julian, CA, which is well known to all Miata owners in San Diego, since many runs through the mountains start or end here. (My mother is in the San Diego Miata Club and so she tells me all this.)

Julian is like our version of Snoqualamie, the real name of Twin Peaks, up in Washington State. It's quaint, they have good Apple pie, damn good coffee (and hot! (that was a Twin Peaks reference by the way (aren't parentheses great???))), and they have exactly one stoplight in the whole town.

Down on the floor of the desert. My mother kindly took my normal hat out of the car so I had...

...a J-List Totoro hat. Here it is in the middle of the road, having blown off my head.

The iPhone takes pretty good pictures as long as there's lots of light and no motion. I was impressed. Of course Google Maps didn't work in places like this but in the small towns, service came back.

This is Westmoreland, CA, a place so desolate that Google Maps won't bring it up when you search for it. My friends and I used to come out here in the middle of the night just when we were bored (we came to count the crickets). It's all a lot different from those days though.

Okay, trip is over. I cut down through El Centro and was home in no time. 110 degrees, that was really hot...