Friday, August 31, 2007

Summer fireworks and reflections on language, the poor plight of Sumo's most famous wrestler, and what's up with those Japanese name stamps?

Hanabi (花火), meaning "flower fire" or fireworks, are part of summer in Japan, and you can't watch three hours of anime without an episode involving yukata-clad characters bent over a bucket of water (Japan is very safety-conscious when it comes to fire hazards) as they light fireworks together. Virtually every city, town or village sponsors a big annual fireworks festival sometime during the summer as a way to bring the community together, and to promote our fireworks show the city government distributes posters to local businesses. The other day we were eating at our favorite ramen restaurant and we noticed this year's poster, which proclaimed the ISESAKI A FIREWORKS DISPLAY 2007. My son wondered what the "a" was doing there when the name of the event was just "Isesaki Fireworks Display," but I knew immediately what had happened. The city office employees, ever fearful of making an error in English, decided to trust the dictionary's translation of hanabi taikai as "a fireworks display" verbatim, and that's what made it onto the poster. I wonder if this is the same reason that New Year's cards always seem to say "a Happy Near Year!" in English? (Note, if you ever want to be cruel, ask Japanese people how many years of English they've studied.)


Sumo wrestling is quite famous as a symbol of Japan, although it's been around since prehistoric times. The current top wrestler in Japan's professional league is the celebrated Mongolian Asashoryu (ah-sa-SHO-ryu, "morning blue dragon"), a powerhouse who has won no less than 21 tournaments in his stellar career since attaining the rank of Yokozuna (Grand Champion) in 2003. Unfortunately, things just haven't been going his way lately. First, he ducked out of the summer exhibition bouts in Northern Japan citing an injury but was mysteriously well enough to play in a soccer game with Hidetoshi Nakata for charity, which caused a big uproar in Japan when it was reported. Convinced that Asashoryu had over-stated his injury in order to take a vacation, the Sumo Association called him back to Japan to explain himself. In the end they banned him from playing in the next two sumo tournaments, a first for a Yokozuna, and docked his pay for four months (ouch). As the official national sport of Japan, sumo is taken very seriously, and sumo wrestlers are expected to have "the deepest commitment, the most serious mind..." . Asa has rubbed Sumo Association officials the wrong way in the past, daring to be seen in public in a Western suit instead of the traditional sumo garb, arguing with judges over their calls, and showing elation and frustration after bouts rather than appearing emotionless like the pillar of bushido that he's supposed to be. He also once pulled the top-knot of an opponent a few years ago, which was quite the scandal. As a fellow foreigner I can really sympathize with the poor guy -- it's hard to be something you're not, and seeing the way the press is ganging up on him makes me feel sorry for him. Hopefully he'll be able to hansei (reflect) on things and be a better wrestler for it in the future. (I wish I could give him one of our Yokozuna T-shirts to make him feel better.)

When a gaijin goes to live in Japan, one of the first things he has to do is get a hanko (name stamp) made and get it registered with the city office. These name stamps are used in lieu of signing your name on documents, filling out forms at the bank, and signifying agreement to any kind of contract. A custom imported from China ages ago, name stamps are a big part of contemporary Japanese life, and even companies like Apple and J-List have them, being legal entities. For foreigners fascinated with Japanese characters, there are several ways to write your name. For example, you could choose the most orthodox route and write your name in katakana, the writing system specifically used for that purpose. If this is too boring, you can find kanji that can be read like your name. For my own last name, I might choose the "peh" sound from Peking (北京) since there's no official way to write that sound in Japanese, and the "in" character from Byodoin (平等院), my favorite Buddhist temple in the Kyoto area. Or I could pick a kanji that meant roughly what my name means and "force" a reading onto it, which is called ateji. Since last name comes from the French "pan," something similar to the English last name Baker, I could dig up an archaic kanji for "bread" and declare that this kanji is now pronounced "Payne." No one would be able to read it, but it'd be my kanji nevertheless. Incidentally, J-List has started a great custom name stamp service, allowing up to get the kanji you'd like on one of three cool Japanese stamps. They're fully registrable as legal hanko stamps, too -- order your kanji name stamp now!

Announcing the start of 2008 Calendar Season! Every year about this time, J-List starts taking preorders for the outstanding calendars from Japan, which are printed exclusively for the Japanese market. The calendars we sell every year come in two volleys: first, we post dozens of amazing calendars that capture the natural beauty of Japan; the delicate imagery of a tea garden; the aesthetic beauty of Japanese sushi or bento; kanji calendars for students; lovely idols in kimono and more. Most of the JPOP and anime calendars will be posted in a couple weeks. Browse the amazing 2008 calendars we've got on the site for you now and get your preorders in!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Masi Oka of Heroes visiting Japan, contemplating Japanese culture through its food, and more dogs in Japan than babies

I knew it would happen: Heroes is starting to get popular in Japan. This morning I turned on the TV and caught that gaijin-that-other-gaijin- love-to-hate Dave Spector (we dislike him because his Japanese is so much better than ours, and because he dyes his black hair blonde to look more "foreign" on camera, poser). He was interviewing none other than Masi Oka, the Star Wars CG-programming uber-geek with an IQ of 189, who plays the time-bending salaryman Hiro Nakamura in the NBC show. Japan is extremely sensitive to the opinions of people in the West, and any Japanese who raises the reputation of the country in the eyes of the world, such as manga-ka Shirow Masamune, baseball star Ichiro or the pop group Pizzicato Five, gets enormous street cred at home. Dave Spector seemed almost giddy as he interviewed "the most famous Japanese man in the world today" despite the fact that, you know, he's not even Japanese. When one of Dave's jokes fell flat, Masi calmly said, "You just made time stop for me. I think you might have super powers." The newscasters seemed thrilled to see that the word "Yatta!" ("I did it!") had apparently entered the English lexicon through the show.

Although the Japanese have a strong food culture, with various types of noodles, nabe (nah-beh) dishes like sukiyaki that are cooked in a central large pot in the middle of the table, and various good things from the sea like sushi and sashimi, they also embrace cuisine form the West. When we go out to dinner, we've got many choices, including American chains like Denny's (which has carved a niche selling extremely traditional Japanese dishes, go figure), Italian (a dozen or more choices in a 5 km radius), and our personal favorite, Indian naan. Although famous for eating rice, which they usually consume three times a day, they've taken pan (bread) and adopted it into many forms beyond the normal sliced type. If you're hungry for a snack, grab some curry-pan, baked with curry inside, or maybe some yakisoba-pan, a long roll with chow mein noodles inside. Many types of Japanese bread are sweet, which we'd consider to be something like a doughnut, like melon-pan (said to make you smarter, since it sort of looks like a shriveled brain) or cornet (a Japanese version of a French roll with chocolate cream inside, and there's much debate about which end you should eat first). One of the most famous types of bread is is an-pan, a kind of round piece of bread containing sweet Japanese beans. Whenever I go to the bakery, I buy a loaf of French bread with camembert cheese baked inside -- yum.

Japan has a famously low birthrate of about 1.29 children per female, and the country's population is now on its way down, having officially peaked sometime in 2006. The situation is made worse than it would otherwise be by the lack of immigration into the country -- while the population of the United States and Europe is augmented by new people coming in to live, the number of new foreigners in Japan doesn't rise appreciably from year to year. In fact, I saw the other day that the population of dogs has now passed the number of children aged 10 and under, so there are now more poodles, dachunds and chihuahuas being walked by their owners in parks than kids playing there. While I'm not sure sure how serious the problem of a slowly declining population really is -- it's not like the country is going to cease functioning tomorrow or anything -- it is a problem that future generations will have to deal with. Japan does do what it can to make it easy for people to come here -- it's usually possible for a foreigner to get a permanent residence visa in five or six years -- but given the cultural and linguistic differences between the rest of the world, it's unrealistic to expect immigration to turn things around. Hopefully, they'll come up with a way to keep their race from dying out between now and the year 3000, when the number of Japanese in the world is projected to be...27.

Monday, August 27, 2007

My weekend trip to Akiba, times when Japanese do or don't apologize, and the history of the stapler in Japan

I took the train into Tokyo on Sunday to meet a friend in Akihabara, the area of Tokyo famous as the electronics and all-around underground pop culture capital of Japan. I hadn't been there on a Sunday in a while and was bowled over by the sea of people I saw, from otaku of every stripe doing their their shopping to middle-aged men headed home with computer purchases under their arms. Part of the reason it was so crowded was that the majority of Japanese get their monthly pay on the 25th, so people were flush with cash to go shopping with. Every Sunday they close off the main street and let people take it over for their own purposes. I caught an interesting "guerilla live" or street concert where singers will appear out of nowhere with a portable karaoke machine and start singing natsukashii (nostalgic) anime theme songs while a crowd of listeners gathers around and cheers. It was pure fun.

I've talked before about how an important trait among Japanese is kenson (KEN-son), meaning humility or modesty. It's much better for a person to be self-effacing -- for example, to deny a compliment on how good their English is -- than to appear boastful and proud, which is why it can be difficult to say something nice about a Japanese person without them disagreeing with you. For all the noise made about Japan not apologizing for certain past events, Japanese people pretty much apologize at the drop of a hat, and there are many situations where the Western concept of "thank you" would be expressed as sumimasen ("excuse me for inconveniencing you") instead. This isn't always the case, of course. For example, most people will refrain from apologizing after a car accident as it could imply accepting fault. Another example of not apologizing would be our bank, the largest in our prefecture, famous for their haughty attitude because they're #1. No matter what small mistake their staff might make -- forgetting to credit a money transfer, say, or improperly filling out a document requiring it to be done over -- the bank's employees are trained never to apologize. This is called tonosama shobai (toh-no-sah- mah SHO-bai), roughly translatable as "running your business as if you're a feudal lord in ancient Japan," and I guess it's a way to show your customers that you are an extremely strong leader in your field, since no other company could get away with that kind of crap. If you've ever wondered at some of the bizarre actions taken by Sony over the years -- the hubristic attitude that nothing could assail their strong position in video games, the Sony-only media formats, the rootkit DRM scandal of last year -- now you know what the concept is called in Japanese.

When English speakers come to Japan, we're generally pleased to hear familiar words being used around us. Although phrases like "after service" (service after a purchase), "plus alpha" (meaning "a little extra something"), "unit bath" (a bathroom designed as a single unit) and "recycle shop" (any shop that sells used items) might sound a little odd, at least they're easy to figure out without too much trouble. Not all foreign loan words come from English: there are words like arbeit (part-time job, from German), enquette (questionnaire, from French) or pan (bread, from Portuguese) that we must get used to. Then there are words whose origins can be incredibly confusing, such as why the Japanese word for stapler is hochikisu. It turns out that the E.F. Hotchkiss company made fine "paper fasteners" (staplers) at the beginning of the 20th century, and a shipment made it to Japan around 1910. The Japanese were fascinated with this ingenious device and, not knowing it was called, dubbed it a "Hotchkiss." If you think something as boring as a stapler can't be innovative, you should check out the TAMAHOTCHI, the cute new egg-shaped stapler that's shaped like an egg, but one that staples papers for you quite handily. Winner of the Good Design Award!

Welcome to Akihabrara, abbreviated Akiba since it's hard for Japanese people to say too,

Basically, there are lots of electronics stores, including some very old school places that frankly don't like all the otaku types who have been taking over the area. DVD stores, manga stores, an Animate, a few dozen Maid Cafes. You know, all the good stuff.

Walking along the man Chuo Dori road. To the left was a huge line of people waiting to get some idol's autograph.

Oo, gotta watch that.

This is the first live (i.e. live performance) I sat in on. She was singing 1980s stuff, which is the best (to me). Yes, I am old school... Interesting to note that she's wearing a U.S. made anime shirt.

This was another performance, but the girls were handing out advertisements for a shop while they sang, so it felt rather spammy.

Headed back. I saw this and wondered if they have any idea what the hell Esperonto is?

My daughter's summer art project. "Drinking and driving, don't ever do it!" Recently my wife and both kids were hit from behind by a drunk driver. The strength of the BMW she was in saved them, but it was a scary, scary thing. Try to see the detail on the guy drinking a bottle of bourbon inside the blue car.

I conclude this blog post with a picture of my stupid cat displaying his "fuzzy dice."