Friday, October 12, 2007

Nuances of how you call people in Japanese, writing systems in Japanese and how they've changed, and gaijin fingerprinting

First, we apologize for an outage on the J-List and websites, which was caused by a bad router at our ISP. During part of the problem, the J-List site was functional but search and shopping cart functions were broken (ouch). The issue has been fixed and the site is up and ready for you right now.

One interesting aspect of Japanese relationships are the invisible rules that govern what you should call others, which can be very complex can nuance-filled. A man named Taro Yamada might be called "Yamada-san" by his co-workers (polite), "Yamada" by his boss at work or his male friends, and "Taro" by his family or his girlfriend. What you call someone is important, since it defines your perception of your relationship with the other person, and choosing the "wrong" thing to call them might lead to misunderstandings or bad feelings. In an episode of an anime I'm watching now, a girl and boy who've started dating struggle to get past calling each other by their family names, which places a distance between them that neither wants. When the girl's younger sister asks why the boyfriend calls her sister by her last name, the two turn red-faced as they struggle to get used to using each other's first names so their relationship can progress. What's interesting to me is that this is such a conscious, out-in-the-open thing that everyone is aware of, not under the surface at all. As usual, my impressions of Japan are filtered through my experiences as an American, and I often get the sense that some of the customs that seem odd to me might not feel so strange to someone from the U.K. -- in the Narnia books, for example, I've noticed dialogue between characters that seemed to follow these Japanese-style naming rules even though it was in English. It wouldn't be the first time I was confused by someone I encountered in Japan only to have it turn out to be somehow related to England instead.


You may know that there there are a total of four writing systems used in Japan: hiragana, a syllable-based script for writing basic Japanese words and grammatical particles; katakana, a mirror of hiragana that's used to express foreign loan words and names; kanji, the Chinese writing system used for more complex verbs, nouns and adjectives; and unofficially, the Roman alphabet romaji, for expressing concepts like FOR RESTROOMS, GO BACK TOWARDS YOUR BEHIND. While constantly mixing multiple writing systems sounds like a confusing mess, learning to read Japanese effectively isn't nearly as difficult as you may think -- it's a logical framework that you can approach in a methodical fashion. Reading Japanese from a different era, however, can be quite a challenge, and even Japanese written around World War II can be quite hard to read, between archaic versions of kanji and hiragana (like the always fun ゐ or ゑ), writing that sometimes went left-to-right and other times right-to-left, and decidedly odd ways of writing kana resulting in something about as strange to my eye as Shakespere must look to Japanese readers. It turns out that after the war ended, there was a movement to standardize and modernize the Japanese language, which eliminated a lot of weird and unused characters, resulting in a much more approachable language overall. I'd like to say, on behalf of gaijin everywhere, thanks to whoever was in charge of this.

The next time you come to Japan, you will probably be fingerprinted and photographed in accordance with a new program about to be put in motion by the Japanese government. It's not that big a deal, of course -- every foreign visitor to the U.S. has been going through the same process for years, smiling for the camera and presenting their right forefinger. While part of the impetus for the move is embarrassment that a member of Al Qaeda managed to enter Japan in 2004, I know the move for what it really is: the latest example of Japan following the lead of West, in this case specifically the U.S. In many areas, Japan as a nation seems content to follow behind the United States and Europe, taking cues on everything from its laws on seku-hara (sexual harassment in the workplace) to how much money you can bring into the country in cash (US$10,000), and the fingerprinting of incoming foreigners (Japan-born Koreans are exempt) is just another way of imitating America. Another factor is probably Japan's desire to feel that it's a part of the global "war on terror" despite the fact that Japan is a pretty peaceful place that's not generally hated by most of the world -- Japan clearly wants to be nakama-iri (part of the same in-group) as the U.S. and Europe. Considering that all terrorist attacks in Japan have come from domestic elements like the Aum religious cult and the Japanese Red Army, I predict the whole finferprinting project will be a big boondoggle that does nothing but create a database of information that no one will ever look at.

Interested in learning some Japanese? Whether you'd like to just learn the basics of hiragana and katakana, learn some fun phrases that can make you the life of the party or make an organized plan to master the entire language, J-List offers a wide range of textbooks, kanji study cards, workbooks, electronic dictionaries and other useful tools that can really help you reach your goal. Why not browse our lineup of study related items now?

Here are some pictures, if you want them. I took a trip to Tokyo on the Shinkansen on Thursday. Snapping random shots out the window, I just happened to catch this love hotel.

Our destination was Asakusa, a popular tourist spot since they have a famous temple there, and a lot of shops. This is the famous "Unko Building" (it's an Asahi Beer creation that looks like golden poop to everyone) with one of the famous Rick-Shaws (which is 人力車 in Japanese in case you were wondering).

We were walking and happened to bump into the headquarters of Bandai.

Ultraman, Doraemon, all the cool characters were out to play.

Passed by a really old used book store that had to have been there since the Taisho Era. This old-style sign is mighty cool, I thought.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Internalizing a foreign culture through gestures, the current state of English conversation in Japan, and guess what day to day is?

Living in a foreign country means more than just learning that country's language. It also means subtly taking the local culture inside you, something that can really sneak up on a person -- one day you're shunning natto and forgetting to take your shoes off when you enter a house, and the next you're serving "coffee jelly" to foreign guests for dessert. An interesting yardstick for how much of this culture a person has internalized are the gestures that we all use every day, since unlike spoken language, gestures are something we don't consciously think about. A big part of body language in Japan involves bowing, and Japanese are known to bow out of reflex even when talking on the phone -- nothing is funnier than seeing a gaijin do this too. Another famous gesture is "tegatana," meaning hand-katana, made as you move throw a crowd while simultaneously bowing and cutting an invisible path with your hand, karate-style. You can communicate some complex concepts using a simple gesture; for example, one salaryman might pantomime throwing back a sake glass to his friend ("Do you want to stop for drinks on the way home?"), while his friend might make little demon's horns with his forefingers and shake his head ("I can't, my wife would be really angry").

The word eikaiwa means "English Conversation," and this is probably one of the first Japanese words a person interested in teaching ESL in Japan encounters. The market for helping Japanese people learn English quite large, and is mainly dominated by the four chain schools ECC, AEON, GEOS, and the largest school, Nova. Unfortunately for the 5000+ native English speakers who work in Nova's "study abroad in front of your local train station" schools, the company is currently going through a rough period that might result in its total meltdown. When most foreigners have experience with Nova it's usually as a teacher -- there are plenty who will give you an earful of the various abuses of the company -- but in my own case I actually considered having my daughter study English there, a considerably rare thing for an American living in Japan to do. It soon became apparent that the company was really interested in signing us up for a 5 year contract in which we were required to pay, even if our situation changed or teachers that we liked at our local school left, with no refunds, either. Turns out, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled this practice illegal, and Nova was ordered to suspend part of its business for six months as penalty. Now it seems that the company is having trouble paying its foreign staff as it tries to keep out of bankruptcy. Incidentally, I generally advise anyone interested in coming to Japan to teach English to steer clear of these large chain schools if you can, since based on my own experience you'll be happier at a smaller school that will provide a more personal approach to teaching English.

I've written before about how the Japanese like to commemorate interesting days. June 4th is Mushi no Hi (Bug Day), when we should all appreciate the things that the insect world does for us, while March 11 is Panda Day, the date when the first panda bears were discovered by a French missionary in China in 1869, and who could forget Fried Chicken Day on November 21st, the date the first KFC opened in Japan back in 1970. October 10 is is Moé no Hi, the day to celebrate the Japanese concept of moé (pronounced mo-EH), which is a slang term that essentially describes the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when looking at your favorite anime or dating-sim game character, although the character itself just means "bud" or "sprout." The reason today is Moé Day is rather silly -- it's the 10th day of the 10th month, and when you line up the kanji for 'ten' above the characters for 'day' and 'month' you get a large version of the moé kanji. If you like the look of this kanji character, we've got a really cool moé calligraphy T-shirt, available on the site now.

There's been lots of news for fans of Japan's PC dating-sim games recently, including the recent announcement that the upcoming game Bazooka Cafe had gone "golden master" and would be shipping in a couple of weeks -- can't wait for that. We've also got a new game coming from the creator of Bible Black, called Discipline, which features an amazing game story and huge lineup of memorable characters that will quite blow your mind. Preorder this great game now!

J-List sells many T-shirts that use kanji, hiragana and katakana to creat fun and wacky designs that are fun to wear. This month's "Wacky Japanese T-Shirt of the Month" is our famous "It Is Forbidden To Urinate Here" design, which is -- incredibly -- a sign you can see quite often in Japan. It seems that Japanese males aren't shy about taking a leak in rice fields, by the side of the road, or sometimes near people's houses, and so you can see these signs forbidding tachishon, that is, outdoor urinating. Our T-shirt features a great symbol of a torii, a traditional Japanese arch, since one place these signs are common are near Shinto shrines (don't want to offend the gods by peeing near them). This shirt is available at a special price this month only!

Monday, October 08, 2007

Learning about Japan through first- and second-person pronouns, the relationship of Japan and Hawaii, and more fun with Japanese superstitions

Strangely enough, you can learn a lot about Japan through its first and second person pronouns: there are several of each for use by different individuals depending on the "TPO," or time, place, and occasion. For the pronoun "I" you could choose from watashi (私, formal, used more often by women, also read わたくし), boku (僕, semi-polite, usually used by younger males), and ore (俺、OH-reh, mainly used by "manly" men); and words for "you" include anata (あなた、formal, used by women more often than men); kimi (君、familiar, used by guys to their girlfriends or by anyone talking to a younger person, and just because the character also means "Emperor" don't think it's okay to use this word with him); and omae (お前, oh-MAH-eh, again, a "macho" sounding word generally used by guys). This last word is especially interesting since it basically asserts the superiority of the speaker over the person he's speaking to, a concept that doesn't exist in English, at least openly. When a man uses the word omae to a female he's got a relationship with, the implication is that the girl "belongs to" him in a romantic sense. This generally will make some girls swoon with affection, while others -- those who speak more English and have lived outside of Japan -- may be offended by being thought of as an object to be possessed. I once got in quite a bit of trouble when I accidentally used this word with a friend's girlfriend soon after arriving in Japan. Who would have thought that words like "I" or "you" could be so complex?

J-List's manga and photobook meister Yasu just got back from a trip to Hawaii, where he spent a week with his wife and two daughters. Hawaii is, of course, a major destination for Japanese travellers, and the monthly number of tourists from Japan is tracked as if it were an economic indicator like the Consumer Price Index. In a way, Hawaii is perfect for Japanese tourists because it's a part of the U.S. without being all the way across the Pacific, so it's a lot more accessible. Also, the high amount of Japanese fluency at hotels and other places frequented by tourists makes the place a lot less threatening for travelers who might otherwise be overwhelmed. The most popular island with Japanese tourists is Oahu, which has plenty of beaches for fun seaside activities, and during peak times of year the place is fairly brimming with J-tourists. The history of Japan and Hawaii have been intertwined for a long time, starting with waves of immigration of Japanese workers at sugar plantations in the 19th and 20th centuries. Now, there are more than a few actors and singers active in Japan who grew up in the Japanese communities that comprise 16% of the local population of the state. I guess being a Japanese raised in Hawaii adds an "exotic" flavor, and being fluent in English can't hurt a person's career, either.


I've talked before about how the Japanese can be quite superstitious at times. Don't cut your fingernails at night, or you won't be able to be with your parents when they die. If you see a hearse, you should hide your thumbs inside your fists, or the same thing will happen (this is due to the fact that the word for thumb in Japanese means "parent finger"). Don't whistle at night, or snakes will come an get you. When you sneeze twice, it means someone is gossiping about you, a joke that pops up in anime quite a lot. If you see a spider in the morning, it's good luck, so don't kill it. Don't sleep with your head facing north, as only dead people do this, and never pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks. If you want to check the weather tomorrow, throw your shoe as far as you can; if it lands sole down, it will be sunny, but if it's on its side, it will rain. Here's another superstition for you: supposedly, it's good luck for a man to carry a hair from his girlfriend's, er, nether region in his wallet when playing sports or gambling. We're not so sure about that one, but anything is possible with the Japanese.

J-List sells many fun and unique T-shirts that make use of Japanese kanji, hiragana and katakana in their designs. We've always been fascinated by how the Japanese adapt their 3000+ writing system to a standard computer keyboard. We love the way Japanese keyboards look, with the kana characters printed on each key, and decided to make a T-shirt featuring this cool design. Shirts for guys and girls are both posted on the site right now.