Friday, September 21, 2007

More about the "second childhood" you get when learning a language, my daughter's Sports Day, and all about the Toyoya Prius and Tezuka Osamu

Last time I mentioned the "second childhood" I'd enjoyed as a student of Japanese. It's true -- learning a foreign language as an adult is not so different from a child acquiring his first language, and there are many similarities between the two. For example, there's word play, joining this word and that to see what happens as you explore the boundaries of grammar and vocabulary. While native speakers of a given language are shackled by social rules and expectations, new learners are free to be creative since they don't yet know what can't be said. This is where we get phrases like "happiness blows on me" (a shampoo marketing tag line) and "Happy Ice Cream!" (what a kid says when they accidentally say the same thing as their friend) and sports drink named Pocari Sweat. Back when I was an ESL teacher, I had a lot of evening classes teaching English to elementary school kids, and many of the silly jokes they would come up were very amusing to the as-yet unsophisticated Japanese part of my brain. One such joke is Inochi kakeru? (EE-no-chi ka-KEH-roo? 命かける?), which means "Would you bet your life on that?" Since the word kakeru could also mean "to be able to write," the phrase could be alternately taken to mean "Can you write the kanji for 'life'?" (命書ける?) which the other person must promptly demonstrate. I had never heard this joke and laughed heartily at it, although it's about as funny as a screen door on a submarine to Japanese who grew up here. Learning a foreign language is fun because it's one of the few situations where you can act like a child without being self-conscious about it.

Autumn is upon us in Japan, and that means one thing: School Sports Day, a special event held at all elementary schools where kids run relays, do tug-of war, have egg toss competitions, perform dances or brass band numbers that they've been practicing for months, and so on. (The band at my daughter's school plays the Space Battleship Yamato/Star Blazers theme every year without fail.) Tomorrow is our turn to "oo" and "ah" at our daughter's school as the kids celebrate youth and sports, and we've got everything ready, from folding chairs to cameras to bento. Companies know that parents are really "oya-baka" ("parent-fools" who go ga-ga over their own kids), and target them with new devices that will allow them to record their children for posterity. The newest offering from Panasonic promises to put "full hi-vision into Mama's hand" with a small video camera that records 1920x1080 resolution video on SD cards. I'm not sure if smaller electronics are considered a feature for mothers rather than fathers, or if Panasonic is being smart by aiming at the person who controls the household's purse strings (as women usually do in Japan), but it's a darned nice video camera, anyway. (Click here to see this year's commercial. Flash required.)

Recently the Toyota Prius had its 10th anniversary as a shipping product, and to celebrate, Toyota licensed the characters of Osamu Tezuka to promote the successful car. As the creator of many of the early smash hits in manga and animation, Tezuka holds a special place in Japan today as the"God of Manga." He created his first manga at the age of nine, and went on to pen over 150,000 pages during his lifetime. He's credited with inventing the famous large eyes seen in Japanese animation, although he was just imitating Walt Disney and Betty Boop, and he was the first person to successfully bring animation of manga-style images to the television screen. The list of his contributions to Japan's manga and anime world are long, including Jungle Emperor Leo (aka Kimba the White Lion), Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy), Hi no Tori (the Phoenix, one of my all-time favorites), biographical stories about the lives of Buddha and Beethoven, and the long-running Black Jack. Stanley Kubrick was a fan of Tezuka and wanted him on the design staff for 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the artist couldn't take the time away from his comics drawing.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Learning about Japan through late-night TV, update on international marriage in Japan, and learning Chinese "for free"

I watch more than a little late-night Japanese TV, and I enjoy its light- hearted goofiness. The other night I caught a show featuring Zomahoun, an African from the Republic of Benin who was one of the foreigners to become TV personalities here through a show broadcast a few years ago in which Japanese-bilingual gaijin from various countries would debate issues related to life in Japan on TV. He was being officially initiated into the comedy talent agency run by director Takeshi Kitano, a ceremony which involved the poor man having to put a chameleon in his pants. (This is funny, trust me.) During the show, there was a little window showing a panel of "hosts" who watched the VTR (er, the video feed) along with us, the audience, and the screen would occasionally cut back to these people to get their reaction to what was currently happening. This is a common model for television in Japan -- essentially allowing you, the viewer, to experience something as part of a group alongside TV personalities, to cry with them after watching a moving clip, to laugh as Takeshi hits someone over the head with his little squeaking hammer, and so on. I'm sure the "togetherness" viewers feel from watching along with hosts adds something important (or at least makes people watching TV late at night feel less lonely).

Kokusai kekkon, or international marriage, is more popular than ever, as both Japanese men and women become open to the idea of marrying someone from another country. Currently, around 10% of marriages in Japanese cities are international, amazing considering the fact that the gaijin population of Japan is only around 1.5%. While most of the statistics come from Japanese men marrying women from places like China or South Korea, there are plenty of Japanese women marrying foreigners from the West, too. Japanese females often have a rose-colored view of what it must be like to be married to an American, and my wife's friends often speak enviously of her. "I'll bet your husband does the dishes every night," they'll say (in reality, my wife won't let me in the kitchen, since I mess up her organization). I'm also assumed to hold doors and chairs, cook an occasional romantic meal, and say "I love you" as I head out the door to work every morning (Japanese husbands are famous for never showing affection). Children produced by such a marriage must surely be kawaii, just like having your own living Licca-chan doll (Licca is a popular fashion doll who is half-Japanese, half-French). While I do my best, my wife would be the first to admit that I'm just a regular guy who just happens to be good at noticing things that a normal Japanese husband would miss, like, "if sashimi (刺身) is written with characters that mean 'stabbing meat' then why am I not allowed to stab it with my chopsticks?" We get along not because of what country we're each from, but because of our shared experiences -- we both know how hard it is to learn each other's language, we both grew up watching Mobile Suit Gundam and Fist of the North Star (although in my case, it was my "second childhood" as a Japanese learner, but you know what I mean).

One good thing about learning Japanese: as a bonus, you pick up a little Chinese as well. Since the Japanese writing system is based on kanji, I can figure out the meaning of about 20% of Chinese if I try to read it, which is about the amount of French I get to understand for "free," courtesy of William the Conqueror. I've got a copy of the original Star Wars trilogy on DVD from China, and it's fun to puzzle out what's being said through the subtitles. One big difference is that Chinese lacks a way to express foreign words (katakana), hence words like "Death Star" or "the Force" get translated into kanji, resulting in "star of mortality" (死亡的星) or "the spiritual power" (精力). Just as eau d'toilette doesn't mean what English speakers think it means the first time we see it, there's some shifting of meanings of kanji words from Chinese to Japanese. The character for "festival" (matsuri、祭) is used for funerals in China, making for some real confusion. In Japanese, the characters hand + paper (手紙) represent a letter you'd write to someone, but the same characters mean "toilet paper" in Chinese. J-List's "Emergency Exit" T-shirt (非常口) has been a popular seller over the years, but these same characters translate as "abnormal mouth" in the language of the Middle Kingdom.

Speaking of kanji, in addition to tasty snacks, plush toys, PC dating-sim games and our patented "wacky things from Japan," we sell a lot of study related items. Today we're posting the top-of-the-line electronic dictionary from Casio, which features about a bazillion internal dictionaries, a great keyboard, backlit screen, support for SD cards and connectivity via USB, and a great kanji input pad that allows you to look up characters by writing it directly, so you can find a kanji even if you don't know how to pronounce it. A great item for serious students of Japanese!

Monday, September 17, 2007

"Respect for the Aged Day" in Japan, various ideas about the grammar of Japanese, and the joy of shared popular culture

Today is a holiday in Japan: Keiro no Hi, or Respect for the Aged Day. Celebrated nationally since 1966 -- originally on September 15th, but recently moved to the following Monday under the "Happy Monday" initiative -- it's a day to honor and show respect for the older people in our lives. It's a good idea for Japan, the country with the highest percentage of people aged 65 or older in the world, currently 20% (in case you were curious, Florida has 17%). The number of centenarians in Japan is high, too, more than 32,000, although the U.S. has more due to its higher population. Today there will be TV specials highlighting the lives and accomplishments of older Japanese, and they'll no doubt be asked what their secret for staying so genki (healthy) is -- and the answer will probably be something like, a daily serving of pickled fish intestines over rice. My kids took a train ride to neighboring Maebashi today to buy a present for their grandmother and grandfather. It was their first trip away from home without their parents tagging along, and they were thrilled to be out shopping on their own. If there's an elderly person in your life, why not do something nice for them today?

The grammar of the Japanese language is, of course, very different from English. While there is some debate about the linguistic history -- the best guess seems to be that Japanese and Okinawan represent a unique language group not directly related to any other language, except possibly Korean -- the fact remains that learning Japanese is very different than tackling, say, one of the Romance languages of Europe. First of all, Japanese is a subject + object + verb language, so a sentence like "I study Japanese" would be formatted differently. One of the more unique aspects of Japanese are the grammatical particles, little words that "mark" the parts of your sentence, almost as if you were making a sentence diagram. For example, there's wa, the subject marker, and ga, the other subject marker, aalthough knowing which one to use in a given situation can be tricky. The marker that defines the object of your sentence is o, and the word that indicates direction is ni, or the word "in" spelled backwards -- both very convenient. Although learning Japanese was more of an "alien" experience than studying Spanish, in effect the difference wasn't really that big. I mean, whether the brain is learning to assign arbitrary genders to nouns (la pluma, el lapiz) or learning to deal with sentences with grammatical markers takes written in a syllable-based writing system didn't seem to me to be all that different.


While the various cultural gulfs that separate Japan from the West can feel vast at times, it's also amazing how similar things can be, too. I like to go to karaoke, and have learned my share of Japanese by memorizing songs I wanted to sing there. Once I was asked to sing "September" by Earth, Wind and Fire by a student of mine, who wanted more than anything to hear it sung by a "nama no gaijin" (a foreigner in the flesh). I obliged, amazed at the time that the Japanese would have an affinity for pop music from the 70's. Similarly, my wife has always surprised me with knowledge of obscure American television that was shown in Japan, like Charlie's Angels, Knight Rider and the Greatest American Hero. She was also a big fan of "My Wife is a Witch" (Okusama wa Majo, aka Bewitched), and so we're able to have discussions about which Darren was better, even though we came from opposite sides of the planet. Sharing pop culture is fun!

J-List sells many products from Japan, and one of the most popular categories is our extensive lineup of rare and fun Japanese snacks. Happily, it's cooled off in Japan enough that we can add delicious chocolate snacks to the site again. Today we're happy to have the first new Japan Kit Kat on the site, with two new flavors, yummy Matcha Milk (Green Tea & Milk) and Melon flavor. As usual, you can buy individual boxes of these delicious treats, or buy sealed boxes and get a discount when you check out. Incidentally, Kit Kat in Japan is the "real" stuff, since it's made by Nestle -- Kit Kat in the U.S. is made under license by Hershey's.