Friday, September 07, 2007

A big typhoon pummels Japan, thoughts on the concept of "standing out" and a fun word of Japanese for you

September is storm season in Japan, as we were reminded when Typhoon Fitow -- designated boringly as Typhoon No. 9 here in Japan -- gave the country a good pummeling yesterday. While the majority of typhoons tend to threaten the southern islands like Okinawa and Kyushu, this strong storm landed smack in the Kanto area, bringing buckets of rain and winds of up to 108 kph/67 mph right into Tokyo and moving up the main Japanese island of Honshu. Throughout the country, flights were cancelled, Shinkansen stopped running, and even several subway lines had to be closed down due to strong winds, which stranded thousands. Our house shook like a continual earthquake, but aside from downed branches and scattered debris, there was no major damage.

In a monocultural place like Japan, the idea of "standing out" is viewed a little differently than how it would be in America or Europe, and living as a foreigner here means being at peace with sticking out a bit. As a general rule, whenever I go to the movies, head to the public bath or participate in some activity with my daughter's Girl Scout Troop, I'm likely to be the only foreigner around, and that means I'll often be getting more than my share of attention. This will take the form of a general awareness of my being there, so I go out of my way to use polite Japanese in public to make a good impression, and I make sure my kids use polite Japanese too, or speak English. There are times my unique status in Japan can work to my advantage, since most people who meet me once will remember my name, as I'm the only foreigner they've talked with all year, or perhaps in many years. While adults are polite about not staring, children often don't know better, and I've had gaijin friends who really couldn't handle having kids watching them all the time. (I find its better to strike up a conversation with the kids in Japanese to reassure them that I'm not from Mars.) It's not like there are so few foreigners in our city that Japanese people are shocked when they see one; rather, it's that the bulk of the gaijin population here, which are from countries like Brazil and Peru and Pakistan, don't cross into straight "Japanese" territory as much as I do, and hence I find myself in situations where there are no other foreigners around me more often than not.

When you study Japanese, you have to learn more than just grammar, vocabulary and the writing systems -- you need to get used to the subtlety of the language, of what is said directly and what is simply assumed. This can sound impossibly hard at first, but with practice and experience students can pick it up. One word that describes the famous vagueness of Japanese is nantonaku, which can be translated as "by feeling" "for some reason" or "without thinking about it." Often, comprehending Japanese is a mixture of considering what is said and what is silently understood, for example, picking up the subject of a sentence even though it's omitted. I found the best way to expose myself to the vagueness of spoken Japanese was to read lots of manga, which gave me a constant source of input of spoken language, since manga is almost entirely dialogue. If you want to surprise a Japanese person, memorize this word. If they ask you why you know something they don't expect foreigners to know, just answer "Nantonaku." ("Don't ask me, I just know.")

Remember, you can now get your very own custom-made kanji name stamp from J-List, with our Custom Hanko Service. Choose one of three Japanese name stamps and let us know what kanji characters or message you'd like printed on the stamp, and the J-List staff will work with you to come up with the best kanji for you, then make your stamp. Stamps can be made using hiragana, katakana, kanji, or even the Roman alphabet.

This is the inside of a Japanese hospital. I couldn't take pictures with all the old people there, so I chose this hallway.

What kind of stomach do YOU have?

Uh, that's me. Now you know more about me than my wife.

An advertisement for Japanese nurses. I guess they don't have enough of them. As with the U.S. Japan is importing nurses from the Philippines.

My car, during the typhoon.

I happened to see some guy's Cadillac Escalade. Can you imagine what cojones it takes to drive one of those giant cars in Japan?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A trip to a Japanese doctor's office, insights into Japanese home remodeling, and differences between Gaijin and Japanese

I was feeling a little under the weather the other day so I went for a visit to our local medical clinic. Japan's medical system is quite good, and there are many places to get care when you're sick, from large hospitals to more specialized medical clinics. As usual, I was struck by what a social place waiting rooms of doctor's offices are, as a half dozen people aged 60 and up engaged in warm conversation with each other, since they come see the doctor most every day, probably to talk with their friends as much as to treat some ailment. Doctors in Japan all seem to have a complex about English, since they've studied an extra four years or so of medical terminology, and they're often disappointed to learn that the average English speaker doesn't know the complex terms for this condition or that. Like universities and elementary/ junior high schools in Japan, public hospitals can really surprise you when you go there the first time. Most are old, built in the style I like to call Late Modern Chernobyl, with few niceties or decorations. The buildings are old, but the equipment inside is modern, so I guess they get the job done.

Our house is finally done with the long "reform" (as home remodelling is called in Japan), and we're enjoying being able to sit in our living room again after almost three months. Our house is quite interesting, a traditional Japanese home built in the 1970s, with a liquor shop in the front and a traditional bo-TON toilet, which is to say, a seatless Japanese toilet which makes a bo-TON (er, splashing) sound when something is deposited into it (trust me, you don't want to know more). The second floor was added 15 years ago when I came to live there, and they put in regular plumming just for their new American son, and we've remodeled twice as our family grew. We're what's called a nisetai jutaku (二世帯住宅) or dual-household residence, since both my wife's parents and our family live there, quite a common thing in a country where the oldest child generally lives with their parents for life. During the most recent construction, I learned a lot about how the still-traditional world of craftsmen in Japan works, watching the daiku, or Japanese carpenters, who have to be as adept at working with 2x4 wood imported from overseas as with installing tatami rooms and shoji paper doors. Incidentally, the word "2x4" is not one Japanese carpenters like, since it smacks of cheap, standardized construction, something unimaginable in Japanese home building before modern times, but sho ga nai ("it can't be helped") today.

One of the more unique aspects of Japan is the homogeneous nature of its people, officially known as Yamato Japanese. Of course, Japanese people are not all that similar -- if you pay attention you can see a wide variation in features, skin type, hair color, facial shape and so on -- but one of the pillars of Japanese society is to not acknowledge any of these individual differences when dealing with other Japanese people. When I worked as an ESL teacher, a lot of my students were fascinated by my gaijin features like my blonde hair and hazel eyes, and by the fact that my eyes changed color depending on what I was wearing. (All Japanese eyes are brown, although for some reason they will insist that they are "black.") The golden hair on my arms attracted kids, too, who would pull on the hairs during lessons. Japanese are also amazed at how large the feet of Westerners can be. My shoe size here is 26.5 cm (I've long forgotten what it is in the American system) so I can usually find shoes here, but my friends with 33 cm and larger feet usually had a hard time when trying to rent ski boots.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Learning about Japan through traditional calligraphy, interesting trends on Japanese television, and all about the word "Domo"

One way to learn about Japan is through its traditional calligraphy, which uses a writing brush called a fude (FOO-day) to write beautiful characters on paper. Japanese brush calligraphy is called "shodo," the Way of Writing, one of the Japanese arts that gets the character for "road" or "way" on the end, like Judo, Aikido, Kendo, and Nintendo (just kidding about that last one). Shodo is taught in Elementary School to encourage appreciation of the art, and it's common for kids to attend an evening "calligraphy school" to get better and writing with a brush. Even if you don't read Japanese it can be interesting to learn about how brush calligraphy works -- even the lowly kanji for the number '1' (just a horizontal line, e.g. 一) can be fun to learn to write in correct shodo style. Since assembling a writing brush, ink tray and ink can be quite a chore, the Japanese have invented the fude pen, with a flexible brush-like tip that lets you write as if you were using a traditional writing brush. J-List just happens to have these pens freshly restocked, along with books that help you get started, a Magic Calligraphy Practice Sheet that lets you write with water, calligraphy calendars for 2008, wacky Japanese T-shirts featuring calligraphy designs, and more!

Japanese television is always interesting, with a broad mix of entertaining things to watch. You can see variety shows featuring popular "talents" being cute or funny on camera, documentaries about various topics such as ways that rural towns are dealing with declining populations, or travel shows where famous people drive around rural Japan, bathe in hot springs and eat delicious food while viewers watch. The most popular genre of television is the drama, and the TV listings are filled with various shows aimed at different groups of viewers. It's quite common for dramas to be based on popular manga stories, such as the currently running live-action serialization of Hana-Kimi, the story of a girl who falls in love with a boy she sees at a track-and-field competition; she decides to go to the same high school as him, although since it's a boy's school it means she has to disguise herself as a male. Another sub-group of dramas involves Agatha Christie-style murder mysteries in which unlikely female characters must solve murder cases the police can't crack. One humorous show I caught was called Stewardess Deka, about three JAL flight attendants who flew around the country solving crimes. Anime is also popular, of course, with children's shows like Sazae-san and Pocket Monster DP at the top of the ratings. Oddly, "prime time" for more involved anime series like the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is...2 am? Apparently most otaku don't keep very normal hours.

If you ever need to communicate with Japanese people but don't know the language, just remember Domo. Domo is an all-purpose Japanese term that essentially means "very" and is found in such phrases as Domo arigatou gozaimasu (thank you very much), Domo sumimasen (excuse me [very much]), and even Domo otsukaresama deshita (thank you for working so hard), said at the end of the day when you leave work. If you can't memorize these phrases, just remember the word Domo, since Japanese people use this word all the time, leaving the rest of the words unsaid (since they're picked up from the context anyway) -- the Japanese just love to keep their language as vague as possible. So when in a situation where it might be handy to have a Japanese word at hand, just whip out your Domo and you'll probably be okay. NHK's popular Domo-kun character, which has become a phenomenon all over the world, essentially exists to teach kids to bow to people they meet and say domo, promoting good manners.

Speaking of Domo, we're happy to announce a youth size version of our popular "Domo-kun face" T-shirt, a super item for smaller fans of Japan's cutest spokesmonster. Now your young ones can proudly sport our cool Domo-kun designs, with standard youth size S, M and L in stock. We've also lowered the price of all youth size T-shirts as well as our youth-size "tatami sandals" from Japan, which will surely be appreciated by anyone looking for things for today's Japan-focused kids.

2008 Calendar season has started, and that means soon J-List will be loaded to the gills with gorgeous large-format glossy calendars soon. We've posted another volley of fabulous Japanese calendars that are usually only available in the domestic market, including fabulous calendars of traditional Japanese art, Japanese gardens, bonsai, Japanese proverbs written in beautiful calligraphy, and more. Want to see the most beautiful temples in Japan? We've got several great calendars. Like bento or sushi? We've got calendars for those too. Lovely Yuko Ogura in a kimono? Got it. Oh, our Japanese calendars make great gifts as well!