Friday, August 24, 2007

On psychology and jealousy of gaijin living in Japan, thinking about Japanese grammar while in the bath, and using the Far Side in English class

I've written before about the psychology of ex-pats living in Japan, such as the the Three Stages of Eye Aversion we foreigners seem to go through when encountering other gaijin on the train the first few times, or our distaste for foreigners who do something rude then take the polite silence of the Japanese around them as a sign that it's okay to keep doing it. Then there's that odd built-in resentment of other gaijin who have been here longer than us and/or who speak Japanese better than we can, which I learned about when I came here after studying the language at SDSU for four years. This confused the Americans, Canadians and Brits I hung out with, since most of them started studying after arriving here, and they weren't sure how to categorize me. Foreigners living in Japan can be especially jealous of the annointed "gaijin talents" who get to to be on TV just because they can be funny and/or insightful while speaking Japanese. A good example is the Egyptian fortune-teller Fifi-san, who has gotten quite a following of fans with her appearances on variety shows lately. For a wedding present my father gave me the autobiography of Donald Keene, an American translator who came to Japan soon after World War II ended and got to hob-knob with all the great Japanese writers of the postwar period, from Yasunari Kawabata to Dazai Osamu to Yukio Mishima -- lucky bastard. As a general rule, any given foreigner will tend to be mistrustful of the theories put forth by other gaijin (hence, whenever someone disagrees with me I can defend myself based on this principle).

When you go to an onsen (OWN-sen), a public hot springs bath, it's important to have all the essentials with you, and in my car I keep a basket with all my bath-related stuff in it -- toothbrush, razor, large rubber bands that let me keep the shower nozzle from shutting off every 10 seconds, and a notepad for writing down all the ideas for J-List posts that come to me while soaking. I recently bought new toothbrushes, changing my normal one from blue to purple, which prompted my son to comment on my "Mace Windufication," after the Jedi Master in the Star Wars films who uses a purple lightsaber. When I started learning Japanese, I wondered how some of the linguistic concepts we use all the time in English would be represented. Japanese is based on kanji for its higher vocabulary functions in much the same way that English is based on Latin and Greek, and complex ideas like "capitalism" or "carbon dioxide" can be rendered in kanji quite logically (資本主義 and 二酸化炭素 in case you were curious). One useful character is bakeru (化ける, to change, to transform), which is read ka in its Chinese form, and this character corresponds to the concept of "-ification" or "-ization" (i.e., a change from one state to another). Some examples of words that make use of this character are kyouka (強化、KYO-ka, strong + change) meaning "strengthen"; oubeika (欧米化, oh-BEI-ka, Europe + America + change), essentially meaning "Westernization"; and the big problem in Japan these days, shoushika (少子化、sho-SHE-ka, few + child + change), or the declining number of children throughout the country. So when my son noted the change in my toothbrush color, the word he used was "Mace Windu-ka." Can you guess how you'd say "otaku-ification" in Japanese?

Before I got into the business of writing about Japan to people all over the world I taught ESL, and I had rather a decent horde of teaching materials accumulated, from workbooks for teaching elementary school age kids to dozens of textbooks and also a game called "English Baseball" where students were asked questions in English and would make a "hit" if they were able to answer correctly. One pre-lesson activity I liked to do was bring my favorite Far Side comics into class and start a discussion around them. As you might imagine, the jokes I thought was hilarious -- "Shocking the anthropological world, a second 'Lucy' is discovered in Olduvai Gorge" (it's Lucy Van Pelt), or "Great moments in evolution" (a bunch of fish have just hit their baseball up onto land and must now evolve legs if they want their ball back) received puzzled looks from my students. Clearly, what Japanese (or Germans, or Koreans) find funny won't necessarily be viewed the same way by Americans, and I suspect Japanese would be more amused by character-based humor that blends unexpected situations for that character. The one Far Side joke that always got a laugh with my Japanese students was "Cat Showers" (a cat in a shower with a giant tongue licking his body).

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Interesting foods Japanese eat in the summer, a Japanese gadget that washes your butt for you, and why Japan might need more lawyers

Japan is a country that's definitely in touch with its seasons, and they celebrate each time of year with many different traditional events, from cherry blossom viewing in April to enjoying the turning of the leaves in the Fall. It's summer now, the time of festivals and wearing yukata cotton kimonos and geta wooden shoes while enjoying fireworks, and there are many foods that help people survive the sweltering temperatures. Having a long tradition of eating noodles, many Japanese naturally enjoy cold soba or udon noodles during this season, as well as "angel hair" udon noodles called somen. One of our favorite summer foods is called hiyashi chuka (hee-YA-shee chuu-KAH), essentially a plate of cold ramen noodles in a tangy sauce served with tomatoes, cucumbers and strips of scrambled egg on top. Watermelon is always a treat but it can be such a mess, so I usually reach for Watermelon Bar, a delicious brand of watermelon ice cream with chocolate "seeds" that tastes so good. One of the most famous of all summer foods is not one I'm too fond of: unagi (oo-NAH-gi), or Japanese eel, which is broiled over an open flame and served on rice with teriyaki sauce. It's considered "stamina food" here in Japan, and many restaurants offer the dish to their customers in August to help them beat the heat. Unagi-don (Eel Rice Bowl) actually looks delicious, but I just can't get past the "eel-ness" of it all.

Remote control Japanese toilet

Ever since the coming of the Sony Walkman the Japanese have been known for their gadgets, which is a good thing for all of us, as the world would be less interesting if it weren't for all those fun electronic devices. From massage chairs that take the stress out of your muscles and squeeze your body from several directions at once to cell phones that let you pay for train tickets and convenience store purchases by waving the phone at a sensor, it's always fun to see what new inventions lie over the horizon. One of the most famous of all Japanese gadgets are those toilets which wash your butt when you're done, which are known as "washlets" (wash + toilet, get it?). Based on the European bidet, Japanese washlets were first introduced by ubiquitous toilet maker Toto in 1980, and have grown in popularity ever since. Most of these washing toilets share the same basic features, including a selector for which er, part or the body you want to wash, a warm air dryer, and a control to set the desired temperature of the toilet seat. Some of the more advanced models freshen the air with negatively charged ions, contain sensors that check your blood sugar as you pee, and (great families with boys) raise and lower the seat as needed hydraulically. The other day I found a washlet with a fully functional remote control that allowed you to control the cleaning functions or flush the toilet from a remote location. This seemed useless to me, as the only possible use for a remote controlled toilet would to play practical jokes on people you didn't like, turning the functions on and off at random while they did their business.

I talked recently about the current scandal over missing national pension payments and how having a few thousand more lawyers might help the situation. It may be odd to hear someone wish for more lawyers, but in the case of Japan it might not be a bad idea. Japan is quite different from the U.S., and some services that we take for granted in America are not provided to people who need them because the legal system seems so distant from the average person. In Japan lawyers are quite rare -- I have yet to meet one in my sixteen years of living here, and have no idea where a courthouse might be located in my city. Part of the reason for this is that the test to become a lawyer is about as difficult as the entrance exam for Tokyo University, but the way Japanese society is sewn together is quite different as well. In Japan, for example, no one needs a will because how their estate will be passed on to survivors in the family is governed according to the rules of "common sense" (joshiki), and you do most paperwork filing that might normally require a lawyer for free at your your City Hall. In Japan, lawyers are extremely respected, being among the professions addressed with the honorific word "sensei." Some other professions that receive this polite term are doctors, teachers, politicians, artists and -- I am not kidding -- Certified Public Accountants.

We've got a great announcement for fans of our popular Japanese T-shirts today: by massive customer request, we're making youth sizes of our most popular shirts! Now you can get kids' sizes of our cool Domo-kun (Three Circle and Black Outline) and Totoro (both blue and grey) in standard youth sizes S, M and L, which is great news to the many younger fans of Totoro and Domo-kun who couldn't wear our standard-sized offerings before. Whether you're buying for the Back to School season or looking beyond, our new kids-size T-shirts are great!

Monday, August 20, 2007

About Japan's most famous (only?) charity, all about the word "genki," and my kids re-adjusting to life in Japan

This past weekend saw the broadcast of "24 Hour TV," an annual charity drive broadcast by the Nippon TV network each year. Like the big "Kohaku Red and White Song Battle" held on December 31st it's quite a media event, and all the biggest names in entertainment lend their star power to help raise money from viewers for various good causes. Over the course of the broadcast the hosts put on many events, including a marathon and various other sports-related segments. The theme of this year's show was "An Event That Changed Your Life," and former baseball star Shinjo (who played in the U.S. for three years) went on a "Darts Trip," throwing a dart at a map of Japan then traveling to that prefecture to interview people while the cameras watched. In one segment I caught, Shinjo visited a rural part of Okinawa to interview people about what events had changed their lives. One mango farmer told him it was when he tasted mangos for the first time thirty years ago; he knew people would come to love the exotic fruit, although at the time Japanese were used much blander fare. Considering that they now sell for up to $100 apiece (in special packages, for giving as traditional gifts in the summer), I'm sure he's not regretting his decision to take a chance on growing mangos.

One of the first words learners of Japanese come across is the word genki, so I thought I'd revisit this fun term. The word is quite flexible, and can mean anything from healthy to energetic to "fine thanks, and you?" The first greeting you usually learn in Japanese is often Ogenki desu ka? (お元気ですか?) which corresponds to "How are you?" (although it can be more accurately translated as "Are you fine?"). The reply is Hai, genki desu (Yes, I am fine). Some other situations where the word might be used include to describe a child with lots of energy, running around a room; to describe an elderly person who is still active and healthy; and when trying to cheer someone up, asking them to "show their genki." (In another context, a man becoming genki can refer to the common phenomenon that happens in the morning.) Whenever you learn a foreign language, you're confronted with words that don't quite "match up" with words you use in your native language, such as the two words for "cold" in Japanese (samui and tsumetai), which refer to coldness in the air and something that's cold to the touch, respectively.

The kids are safely back from their long stay in the U.S. They had a lot of fun doing lots of "American kid" things and are now groaning about returning to Japan, with its cramped spaces and harsh August humidity. As usual, it's fun to observe the changes as they get used to Japan again after a month in an English environment. For example, my daughter Rina was trying to talk about a comb she'd bought in the U.S, but her brain temporarily forgot the word for "comb" in Japanese (kushi), so she substituted the English term although her grandparents didn't know what she was talking about. When she's in the U.S. she goes to the local branch of Score! to study her English reading and spelling, and when her grandmother asked her how that went, she found herself unable to discuss the subject in Japanese, and had to switch to English -- the "wiring" for thinking about an English-related subject like spelling in Japanese had not been created in her brain yet. When you think of summer vacation, you probably don't think about doing lots of homework, but that's just what my kids have to do now with their last week before school starts. To keep kids from totally forgetting everything they learned during school, teachers give them 20+ hours of homework from all subjects, and my kids are quite busy getting it all done.