Friday, November 09, 2007

Foreigners' relationship with Japanese slippers, International Pocky Day, and reading my wife's English homework from 20 years ago

I'm often asked how I can come with so many observations about Japan, to which I usually respond that it's hard to filter them out, since Japan is literally all around me. Like most people who love onsen (hot springs) and sento (traditional Japanese public baths) here, I keep a basket in my car that contains all the bath related things I need: razor, toothbrush, small towel, a tape-covered paperback novel that I don't mind trashing. I also have a small notebook and pen for scribbling down ideas that come to me while sitting in the tub. For example, the other day I realized how complex something as basic as slippers can be. In Japan, shoes are removed at the front door in all homes and many businesses (including J-List), and slippers are worn while indoors. When you visit a Japanese family at home, they'll usually put out a pair of slippers for you to use, which can be problematic when since only Ewoks could wear the tiny things comfortably. Thus, every foreigner living in Japan must choose what kind of relationship he will have with Japanese slippers -- will he politely accept them, or refuse and wear his socks, knowing that he's breaking a minor social rule? Incidentally, did you know that the modern concept of slippers is actually a Japanese invention? Back in the early Meiji Period, when Westerners would visit a Japanese home they'd walk right in without taking their shoes off. So in 1907 (or 1876, according to another theory), a shoemaker named Risaburo Tokuno came up with an "outer shoe" that covered the dirty boots of foreigners, keeping the house clean. These supposedly evolved into the modern concept of slippers as an indoor shoe.

The other day we found an old English textbook my wife had used in Junior High School. My kids and I delighted in reading her English homework from 20+ years ago, especially rejoicing in finding any errors she made at the time (we're kind of mean that way, I'm not sure why). One thing we noticed were little numbers written above words in her textbook. For example, in the sentence "Jane's arrival livened up the party," there was a 1 above "Jane's," a 3 above "arrival" and so on. My wife had been doing what a lot of Japanese do when learning English, being consciously aware of the number of syllables in correctly pronounced words. The Japanese language is based on syllables rather than individual sounds represented by letters, and as a result they unconsciously extend the limited repertoire of sounds from their own language into English, which is where the often thick Japanese accents come from. You and I know that the word "weekend" has two syllables, but to a Japanese who hasn't internalized the rules of English pronunciation, it sounds like "oo-EE-koo-EN-doh," a five-syllable word. If you're a native speaker of English, thank your parents next time you see them -- you don't know how fortunate you are to not have to go through the difficulties of learning English.

Pocky has gone from being a wonky snack that a few anime fans knew about to being a major representative of Japanese snack culture all around the world. The chocolate-covered pretzel stick, which gets its name from the pokki! sound you hear when you snap one in half, was first introduced in 1965 by the Glico Confectionery Company under the not-so-cool name of Chocoteck, where it was an instant hit. Glico was founded by Riichi Ezaki, who after the death of his infant son swore to improve the health of Japan's children by introducing sweets containing glycogen harvested from oysters, which is where the name Glico comes from. There are many different flavors of Pocky released each year, from traditional chocolate to half-bitter "Men's Pocky" to delicious variations like Pocky Crush (almond, cookies n' cream) to Green Tea Marble Pocky to the new Pocky Dessert, essentially a cake wrapped around a biscuit stick. The Glico corporation has declared that November 11 (11/11, which looks like four Pocky sticks lined up) to be International Pocky Day, and to help everyone celebrate, J-List is having a special sale this weekend, with an extra 5% taken off any purchase of ten or more boxes of Pocky (cases included). It's a great time to score some delicious Pocky!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Finding the geographic center of American English, adventures in New Zealand with plenty of sheep, and getting complimented on chopstick use

One question I've been asked by my ESL students in Japan is, just where is "standard" American English located geographically? Most countries define a given region as the "official" dialect of their language, which is then used in textbooks nationally. In China the standard language is the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, in Italy its based on the regions of Florence and Tuscany, and in Britain it emanates from the twin pillars of "Queen's English" and the BBC. The "official" English used in the U.S. is a bit harder to pin down, and it's sometimes referred to as Standard Midwestern, since it tends to flow from that part of the country. In 1868, Japan's capital was officially moved from Kyoto to Edo, which was renamed Tokyo meaning "east capital," in imitation of China's cities of Beijing and Nanjing, the "north" and "south" capitals. This meant that the "standard" Japanese language changed from the colorful, intoned speech of the Kansai region to flatter, more robotic-sounding dialect of the Kanto Plain, something that Osaka hasn't quite forgiven Tokyo for yet. Like the U.S. and Great Britain, Japan does not have an "official' body to define its language is like the Acadmie franaise, and it's generally up to the publishers of the Kojien, Japan's answer to Oxford and Webster as the most prestigious dictionary, to bless new words by including them in its pages.

My son is back from New Zealand, and he had a great time there, doing homestay with a local family and getting to use his English a lot. New Zealand is a beautiful country, very similar to Japan if you take away 96% of the people, concrete and asphalt and add a lot of rolling hills and sheep, and the students loved it there. It's funny how social barriers can be laid low through the power of shared popular culture. For example, the kids Kazuki was staying with were into Yu-Gi-Oh battle cards, and since he had remembered to bring his collection with him, everyone immediately became fast friends, doing battle and comparing the English and Japanese cards. The students at my son's school generally learn North American English, and several of the kids in New Zealand commented on their "American" accents, something that no one from the U.S. would ever perceive. The kids at the school were interested to hear that Kazuki's father had gotten to meet Temura Morrison, the Kiwi actor who played Jango Fett and all the Clone Troopers in Star Wars episodes 2 and 3, at the Star Wars Celebration IV convention this year, and had in fact sung the New Zealand National Anthem to him. Sometimes I think that I might not be the most representative American my son could have had for a father...

Although Japanese kitchens are well stocked with spoons, forks and knives, most meals in Japan are eaten with chopsticks. Children usually learn to use chopsticks around the age of 4, when they start attending preschool, and this is quite possibly the first of many adjustments to the larger Japanese group that children have in their school lives. Every foreigner living in Japan knows the embarrassment of being told by a Japanese person hashi ga jozu ("you use chopsticks very well"). While one popular response is to compliment the speaker on their use of a knife and fork, I've found you can have more fun telling them okagesama de (oh-KA-ge sah-mah deh). This is a complex phrase which literally means "Yes, thanks to you," almost as if you had leaned how to use chopsticks from the person, even though you've never met them before. The phrase is a useful way of showing Japanese-style humility whenever someone compliments you on something, and since few would expect a gaijin to know it, it's fun to see their surprised expressions when you whip this phrase out. (If you're trying to learn to eat with chopsticks, we recommend the training chopsticks we have on the site.)

J-List is the best place to find Domo-kun related items, from plush toys to wacky T-shirts and warm hoodies to our great 2008 Domo-kun calendar that's in stock right now. Today we're happy to announce a line of cool Domo-kun hats, professionally embroidered with cool images of the official mascot of NHK, Japan's public broadcasting channel. We've got not one, not two but three new Domo-kun hats, the "Domo face," our popular "outlined Domo" design and a new one featuring Domo saluting you as he greets you. All hats are made of stone- washed cotton denim by American Apparel and are extremely well made, and are also fully size adjustable. Browse our new items now!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

A useful Japanese slang word, changing in the Japanese savings rate, and one "key" to understanding Japan and America (?)...

Recently we took our daughter to a resort hotel in Kusatsu, a hot springs town in the mountains with more than 1000 years of history. When we checked in, the hotel employee handed us a standard old-fashioned metal key for our room, which made me realize another difference between my home country and Japan. Most hotels in the States employ a computer-control card-key system, which allows the hotel to assign a unique code for each card then change it the next day. While these convenient hi-tech devices give the hotel a more modern appeal with guests, the main driving force behind their adoption has been litigation, with hotels often liable for theft or other crimes that occurred inside their rooms. With the ability to prove exactly when an individual (including hotel staff) entered a given room, hotels in the U.S. can better control their liability for such things. Since Japan is for all intents and purposes a country in which no one sues anyone else -- remember, I've never met a single lawyer in my 16 years living in Japan, they're so rare -- it's not a problem for hotels to keep using the old metal key systems.

I'll teach you a word of Japanese that can be quite useful. The word is -kei, part of the word kankei, meaning "relationship." Basically, you take a word and put -kei on the end and you've essentially widened its scope, for example cha-kei would mean any kind of tea-like beverage, from Western iced tea to green tea and so on. The suffix is often used to create slang words related to fashion and popular culture, and new words are created almost daily to describe the ever-changing world we live in. One buzzword you hear a lot these days is Akiba-kei ("related to Akihabara"), describing anything that can be found in this popular area of Tokyo, from anime to manga to electronics and maid cafes. More specific otaku-related slang words might include moé-kei, i.e. related to moé (mo-EH) or "the warm, happy feeling you get when you look at your favorite anime character," or otome-kei (oh-toh-meh-kei), used to refer to anything related to yaoi or BL. The -kei suffix is used in music as well, for example the visual-kei rock bands pioneered by X Japan and now represented by the likes of Gackt or Malice Mizer, or the currently popular genre of club music known as Shibuya-kei. One slang word for the hip-hop culture that Japanese young people often like to imitate is B-kei, for black, while the type of man most Japanese females would like to date would probably be Johnny's-kei, men who are attractive in the way that Japanese male idols like SMAP or KAT-TUN are. Japanese magazine publisher Recruit publishes Gaten, a job magazine for workers in physically-demanding fields like road construction or moving, and a popular slang term for strong men who can work in these jobs is Gaten-kei, similar in meaning to the word "blue collar."

One aspect about living in Japan I like very much is the custom of a family's finances being handled by the woman of the household, a good thing since Japanese females generally tend to be very organized and level-headed, a lot more than me anyway. In past decades, Japanese households have been famous for their high savings rate, with the average family keeping around US$120,000 in standard cash savings accounts. Now that Japan finally seems to be permanently past the terrible period of recession that followed the bursting of the Tokyo land bubble in 1991, known officially as the Great Heisei Recession and unofficially as the "Lost Ten Years," some are seeing signs that this era of high savings may be coming to an end. In 1973 the average Japanese household managed to put away a whopping 23% of their annual salary, but this number has fallen to around 2.7% today. A lot of changes are afoot in Japan these days, with many households remodeling their homes to make them "barrier free" so that elderly parents can live at home safely, and of course those aging Japanese workers are retiring, reducing the income available to save. Lifestyles are changing too, with people getting married later and later, living at home into their thirties and forties. Some Japanese households are no doubt fed up with the miniscule interest paid on savings here in Japan -- the rate paid by a major bank in our area is just 0.2%, if you can believe that -- and are looking for other vehicles than straight savings. Unlike the old days when Japan had many barriers to entry for foreign firms, many investment companies are active in Japan, offering a range of more interesting alternatives for families wanting to save for the future.