Friday, August 10, 2007

The end of an era in driving convenience, Japan's Obon Buddhist holidays, and everything you wanted to know about what a kimono is

The end of an era for this particular gaijin has come. In the past, foreigners were permitted to drive in Japan with an International Drivers' License as long as they physically returned home at least once a year to get it renewed. Then a few years ago, the Japanese government started requiring that every resident change over to a Japanese license -- a very reasonable requirement, and I'm going through that process now. No one likes making a trip to their local DMV, but doing driving-related paperwork in a foreign language is a real drag. To make matters worse, I have to take the driving test because the U.S. isn't on the list of "blessed" countries whose residents can change from a foreign license automatically (too many differing standards for driving in the 50 states). Because the foreign population of my prefecture is a hodge-podge of people from around the world, I found myself taking the test alongside gaijin from Brazil, Peru, Vietnam, and a really big guy from Bangladesh. By the time we were done with the drivers' test we were all good friends, babbling to each other in various accents of Japanese about how hard it was while we waited for the results to be announced. Japan is a very rule-oriented country, and there's exactly "one" correct way to do most things, including driving a car -- one correct order of adjusting your seat, mirrors and fastening your seat belt, one correct way to hold your hands on the wheel while you make turns. Predictably, I failed the driving portion of the test this time around -- rats. (This little guy is Traffic Safety Horse, proof that even boring government offices can be "kawaii" in Japan.)


Next week starts Japan's Obon ("oh, bone!") break, which is a three-day Buddhist holiday to remember the souls of one's ancestors. Much of Japan shuts down on August 13, 14 and 15th as people journey to their "jikka" (real home, i.e. their parents' home or wherever their family's Buddhist altar is located) to spend time with family members and pay a visit the family grave, or maybe attend a festival and do the Bon-Odori ("bone odor-ey") traditional dance. Living in Japan for the past 15 years has taught me a lot about what the Japanese are all about spiritually. While I have to admit that I don't know much about Buddhism itself, not being able to tell a Bodhisattva from a Bodhi tree or Amida from Queen Amidala, I have known the Japanese to really care about their ancestors, aka family members who have gone on ahead, to use a less cliched phrase. My wife regularly looks to her dead grandmother for guidance and protection, and every morning my wife or my daughter will burn a stick of incense at the family altar to let the dead known they haven't been forgotten. Just as Christmas has grown into a big part of the culture of the West beyond its original meaning, many of these Buddhist traditions are practiced by all Japanese, even if they may of other religions. The Obon holidays are also a popular time to travel, and the rush of people headed for Narita International Airport officially started this morning. If you live in a place that receives many Japanese visitors like Hawaii, prepare to see a lot more of them over the next few days.

As you might imagine, what we call a kimono in the West has many variations here, such as yukata, a cotton kimono worn in the summer; happi, the short kimonos worn at summer festivals, often marketed to foreigners as "happy" coats; "hakama," a formal kimono that's similar to a tuxedo; or juunihitoe, the 12-layer kimonos worn in the Heian Period 1300 years ago. The word kimono is written with the characters ki (to wear, 着) and mono (thing、物), so it just means "something you wear," and there are many similar words in Japanese, like tabemono (something to eat, e.g. food), nomimono (something to drink, e.g. a beverage), and so on. Only Japanese-style clothes are called with the name kimono; dresses, shirts and other Western imports are always called yofuku, or "Western clothes." There's a Japanese grammatical rule that makes unvoiced sounds (like ki) change to voiced (gi) when they are on the end of a compound word, which can be seen in words like karate-gi or judo-gi, what you wear when doing Japanese martial arts (often just called gi in English, which is a little weird sounding if you must know). One of my favorite flavors of kimono is the jinbei (JIN-bei), essentially a short- sleeved cotton kimono that's equally good for use as Japanese-style pajamas (how I wear mine) as for wearing to your favorite festival or anime convention. J-List stocks several of these cool kimono varieties for our gaijin customers, including a great jinbei we got in stock today.

Here's the world famous gaijin, studying for his test...

Don't ask me why they're trying to make you avoid driving your car off the top of a building. It can't happen that often, even here.

I'm probably breaking some law by showing you the written part of the test. Oo, I'm a rebel.

This is the course we had to memorize. It never changes so it's just a matter of learning to do what they expect, but what a frustrating thing to have to take the actual driving test at my age.

I failed the first attempt, possibly because I went to fast, or maybe it was them trying to bring me down a peg, cocksure American that I was. The Vietnamese girl who was nearly in tears who went before me passed, even though she kept stopping in the middle of the road for no reason. Oh well...

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Japan as a "Matrix of Strange English," on the strong-willed (and unattractive?) women of our prefecture, and language error "best hits"

Japan is, of course, the home of funny English. It's everywhere, like a bizarre Matrix of Strangeness that pervades the very air around a foreigner living in the country, despite the inability of Japanese people to perceive it. You can see funny English when you look out your window and there's a big truck with DUCK! printed on the side, or when you go to shave and notice that your shaving cream says "shake a can well," or when you visit the public bath and notice that the air conditioner is called "Clean Poo." You can feel it when you address a letter to a friend who lives in an apartment building called "Maison Cream Soda"... when you go to a coffee shop that advertises "flavorous and delicious communication"... when you crack open a beer and notice that it contains "esteemed quality with fine barley, malt, aroma hop and natural water." Often funny English comes from marketing products to people, like the Paradise Hair Resort I happened across the other day, or the famous Pocari Sweat, designed to elicit the image of light clouds on a hot day (pokkari is a Japanese word that describes floating on air). Sometimes the funny English in question isn't even made up of words, as in the case of a shirt I saw the other day that featured the famous "I (heart) NY" design, with the heart replaced by the GOP Elephant for no reason that we could comprehend. The Japanese are unique in that they generally learn a lot of English grammar and vocabulary -- important for passing college entrance exams -- but since it's such an isolated country, there's no real need for the language in day-to-day life. I guess is what leads to Japanese wanting to display English in so many odd ways.

Paradise Hair Resort

Women from J-List's home prefecture of Gunma have received a slap in the face from an article in the weekly magazine Shinkan Shincho which asked readers to rank females from Japan's 47 prefectures according to beauty -- and they came in last. Each part of Japan is famous for something, whether it's soba noodles from Nagano or white rice and sake from Niigata or "Akita Bijin," the beautiful girls from frigid Akita Prefecture, whose skin is so white because it's too cold to go outside most of the time there. Gunma is famous for several things too, including yaki-manju, bread-like cake that's coated with sweet miso sauce and cooked on a stick; daruma, those red round little things that bring good luck to your home or business; and really strong winds in the winter called kara-kaze (empty winds). Rather than being renowned for their beauty, Gunma's females are famed for being extremely strong-willed, usually able to make their husbands do what they tell them to. These bossy Japanese females are known as kakaa-denka (kah-kah-ah DEN-kah), and this concept is such a staple of life in Gunma that there is -- I am not kidding -- a shopping street in our city called Kakaa Town where all the strong-willed housewives supposedly do their shopping. There are some theories about how Gunma women got to be so forceful, including the lack of a fishing industry in land-locked Gunma and the early growth of a silkworm cultivation which placed women in the role of primary breadwinner of the house. Or according to another theory, the strong winds caused women have to yell really loud to be heard, which made them lose their feminine characteristics.

Making errors when speaking a foreign language comes with the territory, and smart language learners will do what they can to embrace their own screw-ups as a positive way of moving forward with their language studies. At the very least, it's important to avoid being so scared of making an error that you never open your mouth, which is a problem a lot of Japanese learners of English have. Wanting to avoid linguistic slip-ups, they prefer to pre-load their "brain cache" before speaking rather than just opening their mouth and letting the words fall out naturally. I've made plenty of large and small errors over the years, for example there was the time I confused the word hinan (to evacuate) with hinin (to use a contraceptive) in mixed company, and the standard problems of the word "mango" and a similar term that refers to the female reproductive parts, but everyone can make errors. Before I married my wife, we were planning what photographs we wanted taken at the wedding, and she kept asking us to take pictures of her standing on "the glass." I couldn't understand what she was saying -- did she want a picture of herself standing on a reflective surface while wearing her dress? -- but it turned out she was talking about the grass lawn in front of the chapel in San Diego. Poor Jun, J-List's toy-and-snack buyer, had an embarrassing experience, too, while in Chicago ordering espresso from a Starbucks. The coffee was very bitter, so he shouted niga! (nii-GA), which means bitter in Japanese. All in all, this wasn't the best thing to shout in the middle of a coffee shop in Chicago, considering the potential for misunderstanding. (A more standard word for bitter is nigai, "nii-GA-ee"; niga is a slang form of this word.)

Since J-List is physically located in Japan, we're able to bring many amazing products to fans all over the world, and our revolving monthly magazine subscriptions are among our most popular items. Today we're posting two new "Reserve Subscription" magazines for our otaku brethern, the popular Dengeki Maoh super-thick monthly manga magazine, and Dengeki Hime, a great mag about Japan's oh-so-cute anime characters with just a little bit of "H." Both are loaded with free stuff in each issue, from posters to mousepads and more. As with our other magazines, you can always get them on a month-to-month revolving basis, which means you can quit or switch from one magazine to another at any time, and there's never any obligation. (You can also pre-pay for a year's worth of issues and get one month free.) Why not give Japan's most famous anime, fashion, toy, hobby or men's magazines a try today?

Monday, August 06, 2007

All about Saiou and his horse, update on our summer school trip decision, and enjoying Japan's seasons through bug noises

The Japanese have a saying that they got from the Chinese that I mention from time to time: ningen banji, saiou-ga-uma (nin-gen BAHN-gee, sai-OH ga OO-mah), which literally means "all things in human affairs are like Saiou's horse." Saiou was a guy whose horse ran away one day, and when everyone said what a bad thing that was, he asked "How do you know for sure?" The next day, the horse returned with another one, so it was good luck, right? Then Saiou's son falls off the new horse and breaks his leg, which was a bad thing. But because of his injury, he didn't have to ride off to war the next day and be killed. It just goes to show that you can't tell if something will turn out to be good or bad in the end. If, for example, you're injured in a car accident, it might really have been a good thing, since a more serious accident or worse was avoided -- which can really change how you view events over the course of your life.

This is all a clever segue to talk about the trip my daughter was supposed to take with her fifth grade class this summer, which I mentioned here a few months ago. All kids in the fifth grade take a trip in the summer called Seaside School where they learn about the sea and have fun with their friends (they have it in high school, and it's also a common plot device in anime and dating-sim games). Because my daughter spends most of the summer in the U.S. doing "American kid" things like horseback riding at Girl Scout Camp, she wasn't going to be able to attend Seaside School, and we got some pressure from the school to "get with the group" even if it meant changing our plans for the summer. (The trip was smack dab in the middle of Japan's six-week long summer break, making tweaking our schedule a little difficult.) We debated the issue back and forth and got a lot of useful advice from readers (thanks!), but in the end we decided that we had to choose the U.S. since my little girl gets so little time to practice her English otherwise, and we're especially concerned about keeping her reading up to speed. It turned out to be the best decision we could have made, since the place where the fifth graders were to have gone was Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture, on the Sea of Japan side of the country. Which just happens to be the location of the nuclear power plant that spilled radioactive material during the offshore earthquake two weeks ago, causing Seaside School to be cancelled, nuclear waste one of those things parents aren't too keen on. All in all, we're quite happy with the decision we made, even though it was hard to choose between Japan and the U.S.

For the record, it's hot, hot, hot in Japan right now, with the kind of humidity I think of as "East Coast summer weather" from my days living in Maryland and Virginia. Japan has just about the best air conditioning technology in the world, enabling the J-List staff to stay cool enough for the most part while we work, although this doesn't help us at home, where walls and ceilings are still torn up from the remodeling work we're doing -- no air conditioning, except for one cramped room of our house. One of the most memorable sounds of summer in Japan are cicadas, called semi in Japanese (although I joke that they're so loud, they're "auto" -- sorry), happily singing their semi song while they bask in the heat, which they're doing right outside my window right now -- if you want to hear what they sound like, view the movie on the J-List main page. Japan is a country that really values its four seasons, and a whole class of poems have been composed about enjoying the little differences between this season and that. The Japanese love to celebrate the imagery of each season...cicadas and eating shave ice in the summer, the beautiful colors of the leaves in the autumn, eating piping hot baked sweet potato in the winter, and getting drunk with friends with the cherry blossoms falling around you in the spring. Ah, living in Japan is fun.

Okay, got a few more pics from Comicon to throw at ya before I forget. A shojo manga version of Labyrinth? Great idea!

Maybe it comes from hanging out with the 4chan people too much, but one of my "you know, this is something new" moments for this year are that Americans seem to be less scandalized at the subject on this person's T-shirt. There was a lot more general discussion of "fapping" by both girls and guys, which you wouldn't have seen in the past. Remind me to tell you all about the time I had a deep discussion with a Japanese person drinking next to me about which was better, being with a woman or, er, lightsaber practice with captain solo. It was one of those strange discussions that was nevertheless interesting...

The interesting T-shirts just keep coming, don't they?

These were the Darth Vader helmet art series. I loved this one...

But this had to be the coolest thing in the lineup.

Goth-Loli Bible coming out in English? Interesting.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Challenges Apple's iPhone will face in other language markets, like 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. (The "everything on one disc" concept is yet another one that Microsoft's Vista stole from OS X, although I don't know if that was noticed by many people.) While the iPhone 1.0 does support many non-English languages, including the ability to display (but not input) Japanese and Chinese as well as all European languages, it seems to me that Apple will have some challenges making the device work as well as it does for English-speakers in the U.S. as it does for users around the world.

iPhone mail pic
I remember a trip I made to a MacWorld Expo in Tokyo 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 "" 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, and even the minor differences in the language that the device supports -- supporting Canadian English as opposed to U.S. English, say -- will be quite important for the iPhone's success overall.

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" (にほんご) 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, in hiragana こうせい) 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 third-party front-end kanji input programs on the market, like EGBridge and ATOK, which offer more accurate guesses about what kanji you're entering. If Apple requires Japanese users to use, say, the default Kotoeri input method, some will pass on the phone for that reason alone. Hopefully fear at not doing well in their second-most important language market will help Apple understand how important opening the iPhone up to developers ("...developers! developers!") will be -- Japanese iPhone users will need to be able to pick a kanji input tool that they're comfortable with.