Friday, October 19, 2007

Thoughts on how English loan words are used in Japanese, public affection in the English classroom, and the "V" sign

Sometimes it can seem that the Japanese use of creative English is totally random. I mean, how can you quantify the giant sign near J-List that says "SPLUSH IS NOT ONLY THE PROBLEM OF AGE"? But there do seem to be subtle rules for what words get brought in, if you pay attention. Obviously, words for modern technology tend to get imported a lot, and you'd be hard pressed to talk about routers, servers or internet packets without using loan words. Another use of English is to capture a particular emotion, which you see with words like like skinship (スキンシップ, the feeling of a mother or father holding their baby in the bath), love-love (らぶらぶ, a mushy word for being in love) or my-home (マイホーム, a person fulfilling the dream of building their own home). One thing I've noticed is that "positive" words tend to get borrowed more often than negative ones, which goes hand-in-hand with the idea that English is the language for optimistic people, an opinion I've heard expressed here several times over the years. This positive thinking can be seen in product and company names like Cook-Do, a line of easy-to-prepare Chinese food for housewives; "I'll," a travel company who's name makes you think of all the wonderful things you'll do when you reach your destination; Power Up Coming Life, the slogan of a computer store chain; and Try, a school that sends tutors to your home to teach your children. Let's all level up our happiness with English!

Level Up

My wife continues her volunteer work at our daughter's elementary school, despite her misgivings about having the regular Japanese homeroom teachers being involved in teaching English when they often have no skills in that area. (The other day a boy got barked at for saying "How are you?" to my wife before she said it to him, as if there were a set rule that you could only greet others when greeted first.) Yesterday my wife was invited to eat lunch with the 5th graders, so she got to sit and have her first kyushoku (Japanese school lunch) in twenty years -- they served gratin, curry and minestrone soup. When it was time for her to go, my daughter gave her a big hug, which caused everyone in the room to stare in silence. The Japanese are not really into public displays of affection, and it was quite shocking for them to see. I'm sure it will give the kids the impression that Americans are all wildly emotional people who hug each other all the time.

Have you ever noticed the "peace sign" (aka the victory or V-sign) that Japanese people make with their fingers whenever they're having their photographs taken? It's almost the Japanese National Gesture, and quite puzzling to foreigners who wonder why every single Japanese seems to make this sign in every photograph, especially cute girls. While the origins of this strange pose are not known, I would guess that U.S. soldiers probably made the sign (originally popularized by Winston Churchill) while posing for photographs during Japan's occupation, and it entered the Japanese mind set at that time. When you say "peace" your face naturally smiles, the same as saying "cheese." Another way the Japanese get you to smile for a photograph is asking, "What's one plus one?" (in Japanese, Ichi tasu ichi wa?). The answer of course is ni (two), another word that naturally makes your face smile for the camera.

Japan's otaku culture continues to spread around the world, and the latest boom is called dakimakura (dah-kee MAH-koo-rah), also known as "hug pillows" or "body pillows." Essentially life-sized long pillows around which a beautiful printed pillow case is wrapped, these large pillows are the ultimate otaku decoration for your room, great to lay around with while watching TV. J-List now carries the popular hug pillow covers from Machi Chara and others, and we've posted the first great dakimakura for you, with your very own life-sized version of Choco from Chocotto Sister and Louise and Siesta from the anime Zero no Tsukaima. See them on the site now!

Remember that there's still time to get that special wacky item delivered by Halloween, thanks to speedy yet affordable EMS shipping method. Whether you want to decorate your door with the Hello Kitty Jack-o-Lantern items we have or you're trying to score one of those killer Anbu masks we just got back in stock, we'll rush your order out to you. Since we've got the best selection of Japanese snacks outside of the Land of the Rising Sun, you can also give something really special to the kids this year!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On the evolution of language into new forms, thoughts on internationally famous Japanese, and my connection with New Zealand

Every language is constantly evolving, and while the English major in me isn't always happy about the LOLification of my own native tongue or seeing teenagers going weeks without typing an upper case letter or using punctation, I know that it's natural for language to be pulled in different directions by its various speakers. It's normal for words to be borrowed from other languages and adjusted for meaning to fit new situations, too, and fully half of all English words come from French -- for example, words like beef, pork and poultry came to indicate the meat of cows, pigs and chickens through the interaction between French-speaking landowners (who ate the meat) and their English-speaking hired help (who tended the animals). The Japanese borrow words from other languages too, and not just silly phrases like SUPER HAPPY LUCKY. While most foreign loan words are 20th Century imports, quite a few came into use in the Edo Period and before, including tempura (from the Portuguese word for spice), garasu (window glass), ko-hi (coffee), and kirishitan (Christian). In fact, these words have been in use for so long they have kanji assigned to them, which violates the rule that katakana be used to write foreign-based words. Since these kanji words have old-world charm associated with them that's not unlike archaic spellings of words in English ("Ye Olde"), it's common to see these kanji words used to create a unique atmosphere in coffee shops, etc.

I talk a lot about the special status assigned to any Japanese person who becomes internationally famous. Raising the stature of Japan in the eyes of the world gives those individuals an incredible boost in popularity at home, and names like Shirow Masamune, Hayao Miyazaki and Akira Kurosawa are treated with almost god-like reverence because they're so well-known outside of Japan. The current issue of Newsweek Japan presents 100 Japanese who are distinguishing themselves in their respective careers around the world, with musicians, architects, horse jockeys and even a wine sommelier introduced. Among the more well-known names in the list were the beautiful Miss Universe Riyo Mori and animation director Mamoru Oshii, the mind behind the Ghost in the Shell films. Shigeru Miyamoto, the genius who brought us Super Mario Bros., the Legend of Zelda and the Wii, also got a big mention, which was long overdue since he's almost totally unknown in his own country (poor guy). Another interesting name on the list was none other than Domo-kun, the spokesmonster of NHK, Japan's public broadcasting network. The Japanese are tickled that this cute brown monster has found so many fans around the world.

I've always had a special connection with New Zealand, it seems, beyond that of any normal fan of Tolkien and Star Wars. (The Lord of the Rings films were all filmed in the country, and Tem Moirrison, the actor who plays bounty hunter Jango Fett and all the clone troopers comes from there.) When I was six, my family moved to New Zealand for a year, allowing me to get my first experience living in a country other than the USA. I was young and it was confusing for me -- why was everyone pronouncing the letter "zee" like "zed"? -- and they only had one TV channel back then. But I have a lot of good memories of the place, from Big Ben's Meat Pies to Farmers Department Store in Aukland, and the experience probably prepared me for my current expat existence. Today my son is off to New Zealand for a month long homestay in the country, where he'll study with the other students from his experimental English elementary school. I wanted to make sure he paid attention to everything around him, so I gave him a list of 100 things I want him to take pictures of, from New Zealand school uniforms to convenience stores to what power lines were like in the country. (Japan has laws against burying phone lines to protect the telephone pole industry, which make Japanese streets look quite ugly.) I'm a firm believe that every young person should be made to live outside of his home country for a time, if nothing else than to teach them him how good they have it back at home, and if you've got a child who could use improved perspective in life, consider shipping them off somewhere for a few months.

J-List carries a lot of fun products from Japan, one of our favorite categories are the 2008 calendars we've got in stock right now. Printed for the domestic Japanese market, these calendars feature large, glossy pages with beautiful printing that will look great on your wall, or the walls of the lucky people you give them to. Best of all, the art and photographs from the calendars are original and made just for this year's calendars, allowing you to enjoy beautiful images of your favorite anime characters, never published before. Remember that calendars are a very seasonal item and within a couple of weeks we won't be able to order any more of them, so don't delay ordering the cool calendars you want.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Having fun with perceptions, all about Japanese steak, and my trip to a Caribbean Beach

Perceptions are funny things, and it's surprising how easily they can be wrong. One day a student of mine asked me with a straight face, "Do they have McDonald's in America?" Like most Japanese, the student had grown up with "Makudonarudo" around her all her life and had naturally assumed it was a Japanese chain. Another student of mine was sure that Sony was an American company, since it wrote its name in katakana, and was quite surprised when he learned the truth. In Japanese, the word for detective is keiji (刑事), which has the same pronunciation of Nicholas Cage's last name, prompting my son to become confused about why the actor only made police drama stories (he thought each movie was part of a series called the Detective Nicholas series). Compared to Japan with its strict social rules, America can seem like a very "free" place, and a lot of times Japanese who study English get carried away with this, saying whatever comes to mind because they're sure that's what Americans are doing all the time...

Before I came to live in Japan, I didn't expect to find much in the way of steak, since (I was sure) beef would be so expensive that a person would have to sell one of their kidneys in order to afford it. In reality, the Japanese eat quite a lot of beef in many forms, from gyudon (beef bowl) to yakiniku (Korean BBQ) to sukiyaki to high-end Kobe Beef that costs $50 per plate. While the most common form of beef consumption in the U.S. is probably the All-American hamburger, in Japan it would most likely be the "hamburg steak," a steak made from ground beef, which costs around $6-10 for a complete meal. (Quick quiz: a hamburger is to a frankfurter as a hamburg is to a ____________?) Our our favorite chain of steak restaurants offers many varieties of hamburg steak, with the most popular variety being a steak served on a sizzling plate with sauce made from grated daikon radish poured over the top. Steak is always served with a side of steaming white rice, and because meat is considered "Western" food you always call the rice by its English name (raisu) rather than Japanese (gohan) for some odd reason. To the Japanese, a really good steak means fattier fare, and the best meat is ripped throughout with fat to make it succulent -- although it can be a bit too rich for my palette. When our family makes our weekend trips to the mountains, we often eat Korean BBQ, which is essentially pieces of marinated beef cooked over a fire and eaten on rice, and we've learned that the cheapest type of meat suits us the best since it's the leanest.

Over the weekend I took my kids to Caribbean Beach, a wave pool that lets us experience a visit to the beach in the middle of landlocked Gunma Prefecture. It's quite an ingenious system, with all energy for the pool being provided by a massive 10-story trash incinerator next door, which converts everyone's "burnable trash" into heat and captures nearly all the smoke. Like many aspects of modern Japanese life, it was built by our local city with tax dollars rather than as a private enterprise, and the cost of going to the pool is partially subsidized by the fact that we've already paid taxes. While the pool is a an example of a well-conceived service, there are plenty of instances where the Japanese government has thrown money away on facilities no one has asked for and few will use. The biggest bank in the world isn't Citibank, or Chase Manhattan or Bank of America: as determined by deposits, it's the Japanese Postal Savings Accounts, which hold a staggering $2 trillion in cash. Unable to resist this low-hanging fruit, Japanese politicians have allowed some of it to be used for construction of a chain of large resort hotels throughout the country, which never seem to have many guests. With the privitization of the Japanese Post Office, most of these facilities are to be decommissioned, (hopefully) sold to private companies or just demolished. It's hard to be happy about having the facilities be closed, but since they're all operated in the red anyway I guess it's for the best.

2008 Japanese Calendar Season is in full swing, and we currently have stock of tons of great anime, Japanese idol, sports, kanji and other 2008 calendars for you. We've also posted stock of a dozen or so calendars to the site today, with a focus on traditional photographic and art calendars, including Heart of Garden (beautiful images of Japanese gardens), Love Nature Bonsai, Four Seasons of Japan, Utamaro (traditional art of the Edo Period), and more. Browse our great selection of calendars now!

More pictures from my trip to Asakusa. For lunch, I stopped at this place, since the name was just too cool.

This is of course one of the most famous places in Japan, the Kaminari Gate at Sensoji.

I was having fun looking through all the shops. Some sell cool souvenir items you might want to buy. Others sell stupid stuff, like this "oppai pudding in a cup".

This is always a shocker. Of course, the swastika's arms are going the other way from the Nazi one, and it's an ancient mark used for thousands of years.

This kid was really surprised when I translated his T-shirt for him.

I discovered place where famous people had put their hand prints. This is film director Takeshi Kitano...

...who has the same size hand as me.

(The answer to the above quiz is, a frankfurt, which is what a frankfurter with no bun around it is called.)