Friday, October 05, 2007

Questions about ice cream in Japan, on Japanese students who use their dictionaries too much, and funny corporate slogans in English

I was once asked if the Japanese eat any flavors of ice cream other than Green Tea. The answer, of course, is a resounding yes -- they're quite into various types of ice cream, from standard flavors that everyone knows to some unique varieties that may seem a little odd to you or me. Take a trip to a Japanese ice cream shop and you'll see plenty of familiar flavors, like vanilla and chocolate and sakura (cherry), as well as some flavors that might be new to you, like ume (Japanese plum), sweet potato or traditional sweet azuki beans. Often, ice cream makers base new flavors on food trends, like rose flavored ice cream to make your body smell nice from the inside out, healthy "black sesame" ice cream, or this year's big boom, mango. Every once in a while I run across articles about really rare flavors of ice cream in Japan, like crab, octopus, beer or wasabi. While these products do exist, they're not generally eaten by the average Japanese person, and usually represent some region of the country's efforts to define themselves as the "squid ink flavored ice cream capital of Japan" or something. Since the Japanese like to pretend they're culturally closer to Europe than to Asia, ice cream is often consumed in the form of gelato, although "soft cream" (what soft-serve ice cream is called here) is also popular. One of our family's favorite treats is to take standard vanilla ice cream and sprinkle matcha powder over the top, which is great when it all starts to melt together. By happy coincidence, we just happen to have gotten some matcha powder in stock today.

Squid Ink Ice Cream
Yes, Virginia, there really is squid ink ice cream...

One thing that always frustrated me as an ESL teacher was my students' over-reliance on dictionaries. Language is about communication, and as a general rule conversations stop when one party puts their nose in a dictionary to look up a word. It's therefore important to learn how to get around difficult words that would otherwise create a linguistic roadblock, to be able to explain a concept in a different way. I once went hitchhiking up to Northern Japan, and during my trip I decided I wanted to buy a flashlight so I could read in dark places. Trouble was, I didn't know the word for flashlight in Japanese, so I had to describe what I meant in other ways until I want I wanted -- it was surprisingly challenging. In ESL class I'd split my students up into groups and have them describe various words to each other, to help them get used to communicating ideas indirectly. This is extremely important when, say, talking about Japan to people form other countries. Let's say a Japanese person wanted to describe a kotatsu -- a low table with a heater inside and a blanket over the top, which is used in the winter to warm your legs -- to someone from another country. No dictionary will help since the concept is totally foreign, and it's important for them to learn how to find other words for what they want to say.

"Netz. Make the style." This is the official slogan of Toyota's "Nets" showrooms in Japan, used in most of their TV commercials. I'm not quite sure why virtually every Japanese company has to have a slogan in English -- perhaps it's tied to my theory that use of English allows advertisers to access emotions in viewers that couldn't be reached any other way -- but nearly every company has one. They're designed to give you a positive image of the company in encapsulated form, such as small-car maker Daihatsu's "We Do Compact" or UCC Coffee's "Good Smile Coffee." The Meiji chocolate company's slogan is "!" which brings to mind opening one of their packages to find something good inside. When Mitsubishi started having problems with its vehicles, it quietly changed its official slogan from "Heart-Beat Motors" to "Changes for the Better" to show that they were working to fix their products, although I'm sure no one noticed by us gaijin. One of my favorites company slogans belongs to Hitachi, creator of many products from electronics to the bullet trains. Their slogan is "Inspire the Next," and they use it both in and outside of Japan, despite its slightly wonky sound -- good for them. It's not hard to find odd-sounding company slogans. For example, my wife shops at a drug store that declares itself the "Wellness Business for National Confidence." Pretty good for a small chain of drug stores located in one city in Japan!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Linguistic foibles in Japanese, "made-in-Japan" English words for people who like mayonnaise, and questions about inflation

The other day my wife asked me what a "window-breaker" was. I assumed she was asking about a type of jacket designed to protect you from the wind, but she just might have been talking about a person whose occupation it was to break windows. The problem is that Japanese is a syllable-based language, and generally not blessed in terms of the range of sounds you can produce with it. Foreign words like "wind" are written with the katakana writing system, but because you can only produce the sounds da, di, du, de or do but never "d" all by itself, the word "wind" always comes out a bit like "window," something that takes getting used to. There are other phonetic rough spots built into the language, too. When Lord of the Rings (ロード・オブ・ザ・リング) was released here, a lot of fans thought it was Road of the Rings, due to the lack of differentiated L and R (ロード could also be "load"). Another problem area is that the sound "si" is pronounced as "shi" in Japanese, which means that a simple word like "sit" can be extremely embarrassing -- and don't even consider trying to use the English word "pushy" here, it will not mean what you think it will mean. Some other words that can't be accurately rendered in Japanese are "love" and "rub," which effectively become the same word; "curb" and "curve," which also get reduced to a single concept; "cone" and "corn," prompting millions to assume that the thing that ice cream sits on is made of corn; and the extremely hard-to-pronounce trio of "clash" "crash" and "crush."

The Japanese are well known for using the grammatical rules of English to create new words, which are called wasei eigo or "Made in Japan English." One of the most famous examples of these is "nighter," which is what a night game of baseball is called here. Adding this "-er" suffix to words is a popular way to create new words, and there's an extensive body of slang that makes use of this mechanism. For example, the word for "part time job" in Japanese is arubaito, borrowed from the German word arbeit, so naturally a person working such a job is an arubaitaa (arubeiter), also known as a freeter (for "free-lance albeiter"). Often these new words are invented to define a sub-group of society, for example people who love mayonnaise are widely referred to as mayoraa (mayo-ers), while people who love to collect Hello Kitty products are defined as Kitty-raa (Kittylers). There seems to be a connection to general otaku culture, too. It's possible to extend the ending vowel of the word Akihabara to produce something like Akihaballer (egads, that's hard to transliterate), which means otaku who spend lots of time in Tokyo's electronics and anime hub. Of course, these silly words come and go all the time, so don't expect to find them in a dictionary.

I saw a news report the other day that a major producer of instant noodles in Japan will be raising prices by 10-20 yen soon in response to the rising costs of raw materials to make their products. It seemed interesting to me that this was even news, since in the U.S. at least, most people take the slow creeping of inflation for granted, assuming that most things will be more expensive next year than they were a year ago. But for some odd reason, this rule doesn't generally apply to Japan, where the inflation rate always seems to be low. Except for one hike in train fares a few years ago, I'd be hard pressed to name many prices that have gone up appreciably over the past decade -- and in fact, some of prices have fallen, like when Yoshinoya lowered the price of their trademark Beef Bowl. Recently, however, the rising cost of oil has started to put real inflationary pressure on the country, with a liter of gasoline going for around $1.25, which works out to $4.50 a gallon. My wife is also mad because these useful plastic drawers we use to organize our house have shot way up in price.

Monday, October 01, 2007

You've been in Japan too long when you 'teach' someone your phone number, all about the history of Panasonic, and fun with English phrases in Japan

"You've been in Japan too long when you 'teach' someone your phone number." Of course, we all use different words for different functions, and even within dialects of a single language words are "mapped" quite differently -- for example, if you're in North America, do you consider a carbonated beverage to be 'soda,' 'pop,' 'coke' or a 'soft drink'? It varies linguistically by region. In Japanese, certain words are used in situations that seem odd to English speakers at first. For example, when you ask someone to tell you their phone number, you'd use the word oshiete, which means "please teach me," which takes some getting used to. Similarly, in my dialect of English I "buy" (kau) gas for my car, but in Japan you always use the verb "put in" (ireru) instead, and my Japanese friends kept correcting me when I'd use the wrong word. The strange word mapping goes the other way, too. In Japanese the concept of "good" taste (oishii) and "good" quality (ii, pronounced like "ee") are completely separate, so there's a tendency for Japanese to not like using the word "good" about how food tastes -- their brain rebels against the violation of its internal rules, which is why you may notice that Japanese people sometimes over-use the word 'delicious' when they speak English, such as "Don't eat that, it's not delicious."

Like most people, the Japanese have a lot of respect for the business leaders who have created enduring organizations, with Thomas Edison very near to the top of the list. Another man who is well respected in Japan is Konosuke Matsushita. Very poor as a child, he was forced to leave school in the 4th grade and start working to help support the family. Trained as an electrician's assistant, he soon got an idea for a new kind of electric socket, and in 1918 he founded a company to manufacture it with his wife and brother-in-law. This was the beginning of the Matsushita Electronics Company, more famous under its other name of Panasonic, which managed to grow from a tiny shop in Osaka into the largest electronics maker in Japan. That's not bad for a guy with no education or capital doing business in a country that lacks an American-style "two guys named Steve in a garage" type of entrepreneurial tradition. Like all Japanese companies, Matsushita is into a few businesses that might surprise you, including racing bicycles, home construction (as "Panahome"), and elevators. After he retired, Konosuke went on to write books on his approach to business, and founded a Dale Carnagie type management school. He's said that the man he respects the most is Hideyoshi Toyotomi, one of the three "unifiers" of Japan who started out as a peasant but managed to work his way up to the position of de facto shogun of Japan. Like Hideyoshi, Konosuke said he never shied away from any job that was assigned to him, no matter how menial or dirty it was, which was one secret of his success.


For one reason or another, there are certain phrases in English have burned themselves on the collective consciousness of the Japanese, and are quite famous here. When an American named Dr. Clark (universally known as "Clark-hakase") went to Sapporo to help establish what would become Hokkaido University, he left the following advice to his Japanese hosts: "Boys, be ambitious!" (i.e., strive to dream large in all that you do). These three words managed to become extremely famous, and there isn't a Japanese person who doesn't know them. Song lyrics and famous movie lines also provide a bridge to the English language, and speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln ("Government for the people, by the people, and of the people") are studied in school the same way we studied Shakespeare in the U.S., too.

Great news for fans of our 2008 Japanese calendars: the first batch of calendars have come in, and are being posted to the site right now. We've currently got lots of stock of such great calendars as My Neighbor Totoro and the oh-so-nice Studio Ghibli calendar, with all new art from the Hayao Miyazaki films; other popular TV anime (Naruto, Bleach, Katekyo Hitman Reborn); beautiful Japanese idols like Yoko Kumada, Misako Yasuda and Yuko Ogura; JPOP stars like Kumi Koda and Morning Musume; and much more. These calendars are in stock and ready for your immediate order, so check them out!

Some pictures of my daughter's sports day of a week ago. Here are some kids running a race.

As usual, I had great fun scoping out funny English on people's T-shirts. This woman apparently has many amorous stories for us.

This guy had on an anime T-shirt, of all things. That's rare has heck in Japan.

Decision shaking, appear & existence."


Nice to know there's a difference.

This is the marching band, playing the Yamato theme song like they do every year (it's a local tradition). It was so hot I was happy to stand out in the middle of the ground with my mother-in-law's frilly lace parasol, just to keep out of the direct sun.

There's some strange connection between the Japanese and Cream Soda, because I had a friend who lived in an apartment called Apartment Cream Soda.