Friday, August 03, 2007

My thoughts on the iPhone and challenges at using it in Japanese, hitchhiking, and the true "country" music of Japan

When I was in the U.S. I played with Apple's new iPhone in an Apple Store and immediately knew I had to have one. (It's funny how my business trips to the U.S. just happen to coincide with Star Wars movie releases, major U.S. product launches, and so on -- please don't tell my wife.) The iPhone is great, and even in Japan, where its phone functions don't work, it's quite useful as a WiFi device that allows me to do my mail, check websites, and enjoy music and videos. One of the big benefits of Apple's OS X operating system is that there's only one worldwide version, with everything international users need included on the install DVD -- this is a huge improvement over the days when the Japanese version of the latest OS would take a year to show up. While the iPhone does support many non-English languages, including the ability to display (but not input) Japanese and Chinese, it seems to me that Apple will have some challenges making the device work for users around the world.

iPhone mail pic

I remember a trip I made to a MacWorld Expo back in the 1990s. Apple was working on a Japanese version of the venerable Newton, and asked me if I'd write some kanji characters with the software they were testing. If you've ever thought that the Newton was hard to use with the standard Roman alphabet, it was even more difficult getting it to recognize my handwriting in Japanese, and the device was eventually "Steved" (cancelled, to use the terminology of the day) not too long after. Happily, the iPhone has an on-screen keyboard for you to type on, which works in tandem with an internal dictionary that corrects errors you make while typing, and it learns too, so that it eventually stops trying to tell me that my website is "joist.com." Getting this dictionary just right for users in other countries will be extremely important for Apple, since no one would want their phone suggesting incorrect spellings to them as they type. Inputting complex languages like Japanese will be a bit more difficult, and it will call for a "front end" input manager as seen in the built-in Kotoeri for Mac and Japanese IME for Windows. The way it works is, you select Japanese as the current input method, then type a word like "nihongo" and press the space bar. The front end program then guesses what kanji it thinks you want, and you keep typing or choose another character if it guessed wrong. This is usually fairly straightforward, but there are some words that have many possible kanji, like kousei (koh-SEI) which could mean structure (構成), justice (公正), public health (厚生), or fixed star (恒星), depending on which characters you choose. One issue that might miff would-be iPhone buyers in Japan is, there are several front-end kanji input programs on the market, like EGBridge and ATOK, which offer more accurate guesses about what kanji you want to enter. If Apple requires Japanese users to use, say, the default Kotoeri input method, some of them will pass on the phone for that reason alone.

Back when I was single, I did a fair bit of traveling around Japan, including hitchhiking, which wasn't always easy since the Japanese don't have a custom of giving rides to strangers at all (let alone big hairy barbarian gaijin). I had my best success by dressing nicely and putting on a tie then going to the freeway I.C. ("interchange," i.e. the on-ramp) and standing with a clearly written sign featuring where I wanted to go. I also brought some kind of gift for people who gave me a ride, like cigarettes from the U.S., since gift giving really oils those squeaky wheels here. Once I was trapped at a truck stop at midnight in cold part of northern Japan, and a man appeared offering to let me come stay at his house for the night. Normally I wouldn't consider going off with a stranger, but one of the really good things about Japan is how helpful people are to okyakusan (visitors, guests), and the man was just happy to be able to show a foreigner some hospitality. I've always like enka, the sad traditional music of Japan that's roughly equivalent to American country music and which got its start from fishermen trawling the lonely seas. Just as the "soul" of country music is more or less based on Nashville, Tennessee, the eerie sounds of enka eminate from northern Japan, especially chilly Aomori Prefecture, at the top of the main Japanese island. I have fond memories of hitchhiking all around that lonely part of Japan, smelling the salty air of the Straits of Tsugaru, which bridge Honshu and Hokkaido and of which many enka songs are sung. Ah, those days were a lot of fun...

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Thoughts on flying to Japan, comparing sports and sexy waitresses, and more oddities of written Japanese

Well, I've completed my return journey, and am safely back in Japan. Whenever people hear I'm flying across the Pacific they usually assume it's a really horrible experience, however I'd say it can actually border on pleasant. With the amount of entertainment choices available to me as a modern traveler, from the new Harry Potter book to my MacBook loaded with games and movies to the shiny new iPhone I couldn't resist buying (I'm very happy for that "prepaid" hack that lets you use the phone without signing up for the two year contract), I was doing just fine. Since there are no connections involved, it's a lot more convenient flying to Japan than the three planes I had to take when traveling to Baltimore, for example.

It's funny how some of the differences between Japan and the U.S. turn out not to be all that different at all. For example, when I first got to Japan it seemed odd to me that sports teams were usually named after companies instead of cities, e.g. the Yomiuri Giants, named for the giant Yomiuri newspaper company, or the Hanshin Tigers, owned by the Hanshin (which means "Kobe and Osaka" in case you were curious) railroad line. But after proper reflection, is this custom really any different from the trend of American stadiums being branded with corporate names, like Qualcomm Stadium and Petco Park in San Diego? Not really. Japan is certainly a country that has a different dynamic at work when it come to sex, and I've met gaijin in Japan who were less than happy about restaurants like the famous Anne Miller's that have built a name for themselves around extremely attractive waitresses dressed in sexy "push-up" waitress uniforms. And yet, this really isn't any different than what you can see at any Hooters or similar places in the U.S. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the core idea for the Anne Miller's uniforms (roughly equivelent to the Playboy Bunny in terms of general cult status here) were directly "inspired" from the classic St. Pauli's Girl from the beer ads, since they look very similar.

I talked last time about words like meganekko (眼鏡っ子), a word which means "girls with glasses" and which is pronounced "meh-ga-neh-KKO," with a short pause where the double "k" goes. When properly written in hiragana, the "basic" writing system of Japanese, this short pause is called a "small tsu," essentially the kana character read "tsu" written at half size (i.e., っ as opposed to つ). Linguistically it's called a glottal stop, and while many languages have them, it's odd to find a language that has a written character for the sound. Usually expressed in the Roman alphabet with double consonants, some words that have this brief pause include gakkou (gah-[small pause]-KOH, school), nattou(nah-[small pause]-TOH, fermented soybeans) and matcha (mat-[small pause]-CHA, green tea). For anyone interested in learning to read Japanese, one reason I recommend textbooks or flashcards that only feature hiragana, katakana and kanji as opposed to romanized Japanese is, forcing yourself to learn the actual characters that the Japanese use not only helps you learn to read better, it also helps your Japanese pronunciation, since the rules of English (like silent 'e' and all that) will only trip you up when trying to pronounce words correctly.

Monday, July 30, 2007

150,000 fans later, learning about Japan through the kanji for "child," and comparing movies between Japan and the U.S.

Well, one weekend and a staggering 150,000 people later, the 2007 San Diego Comic-Con is past. It was a wild show, and we handed out an estimated 12,000 J-List tissues to people who came by to say hi. If you were one of them, thank you! Now I'm headed back to Japan, and it will certainly be good to be home, although our "reform" (remodeling) work is still proceeding, which means the house is likely to be a bit torn up. I'm leaving the kids behind to get their annual concentrated dose of English, as they attend various summer camps -- Girl Scout and Skating Camp for my daughter, Chess Camp and a fun camp where they explore various parts of San Diego for my son. They'll probably come back speaking better English than they speak Japanese again this year...

It was a real rush, having so much going on during the convention. I was extra-busy because in the evenings I was trying to see all the great movies playing in theatres here in the U.S. with my kids before it was time for me to jaunt back to Japan. We went to late showings of Harry Potter on Friday and the Simpsons Movie on Saturday, and both were great. As usual, I can't go out the door without seeing something to compare between Japan and the U.S., and the trips to the theatre were no different. My kids were surprised to see that, in both films, the audience was very active, laughing at jokes and applauding at every turn, barely able to sit still. Compared to the silent, passive way that Japanese audiences take in movies, it was like a night at the Rocky Horror Picture Show. They were also amazed that there'd be anyone else in the theatre past 7 pm. In Japan, movies are usually watched in the afternoons, and almost no one goes to the movie theatre late at night.

Everyone remembers firsts, like that first time on a bicycle, or the first time you kissed a girl or boy. I remember the first kanji character I became aware of from trying to puzzle out written Japanese. The character was ko (子)which means "child" (an alternate reading is shi), and it's most commonly found in names of Japanese girls, like Keiko, Ayako or Sachiko. It's quite a flexible word, being found in scientific words like denshi (電子, child of electricity, i.e. an electron), or genshi (原子, child of origin, or an atom). Most "baby" names of animals can be made by putting ko in front of the name, like koinu (koh-EE-noo) for puppy, and if you're an astute fan of the classic anime series Macross, you might have noticed that the Zentraedi alien Miriya has a baby they call Komiriya -- a great little joke. there. The "ko" word is often used to delineate a group of people, for example Edokko (江戸っ子, eh-doh-KKO, with a small pause at the double consonant), a label worn proudly by families who have lived in the Tokyo area since the days when it was named Edo, or kagikko (key child, 鍵っ子), the Japanese term for latchkey kid. My wife was a misekko (店っ子) or "shop child," a child whose parents ran a shop and were thus too busy to play with her or take her places, which is why she watches so much television, she tells me. You can see the kko ending in the labels of many otaku-related concepts, like meganekko (meh-gah-neh-KKO, again with the pause), meaning cute girls with glasses, or burikko (boo-REE-kko), the annoyingly cute way that Japanese girls act like helpless children as a way of charming men into doing their bidding.



It's time for a con! Amazingly, I worked three major anime cons this month, which were AX, Otakon and Comicon in San Diego. I am officially tired and would like to rest now.



Catbus, check. Anbu masks, check. Setup was terribly delayed on Wednesday, and we were feeling very rushed on premier night. We'll do better next time.



Roses are #FF0000, Violets are #0000FF, All my Base are Belong to You. Do you get that? If so, you're really 1337!



If you haven't been to Comicon yet, you haven't been to a really huge convention. Basically, they have everything imaginable there, from comics to Star Wars to anime to Asian film and even oddly cool stuff like the covers of romance novels from decades past.



On Thursday I took the kids to see a live performance of Star Wars music. It was pretty fun, especially the Yoda Ventriloquist Dummy guy.



Cool "Battle Damaged" Storm Trooper here.



Costumers were everywhere, although in truth, the cosplay is nothing compared to Anime Expo, mainly because of the high number of "normals" at this show.



Domo, Domo-kun. More updates and pics when I get back to Japan-land...